Budget Travel in Asia
Planning for a Cheap Trip
At a market in Vietnam.
Asia is a massive continent, with little in common besides the land mass. It stretches from super-expensive Japan to dirt-cheap Nepal, from tropical jungles to sub-zero Siberia, from the bizarro-land states of Turkmenistan and North Korea to the ultra-modern tech-savvy lands of Singapore and South Korea.
In terms of budget planning, it’s best to divide Asia into three areas: Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and Asia-Pacific. The differences can be striking. Even budget travelers can easily blow through $100 per day in Japan. To spend $100 per day in Laos would require staying at a very fancy hotel, eating at the most expensive restaurant in town, and ordering imported French wine with dinner. Otherwise, $20 a day can set you up rather well.
Sometimes the radical difference can be within one country even: rural China is far cheaper than bustling Shanghai and anywhere in southern India will cost a fraction of Mumbai's rates for lodging.
Southeast Asia was the original budget overland trail, spawning the Lonely Planet guidebook empire with the first edition of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. It’s still the most popular region for budget backpackers, and for good reasons. Collectively, the whole area is a terrific value and you can go overland from country to country quite easily. With several budget airlines plying the skies as well, you can also fly between them for a reasonable price. As a result, you can move around almost effortlessly through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Plus Bangkok is the undisputed hub for cheap flights to anywhere, so it’s a great crossroads no matter where you are headed.
You can get a healthy street stall or cheap restaurant meal for a couple dollars throughout the region. Except for a few major historic sights, you won’t pay much to go sightseeing either. Most backpacker couples go for months through four or five countries without spending more than $15-$20 for a private room, and often less than half that. In other words, you can do it all without having to cut back somewhere. If you are on vacation and have a mid-range budget, you can really live it up. A $50 hotel in Vietnam, for example, is more like a Hilton than a Motel 6.
A variety of delicious and inexpensive dishes in Vietnam.
There’s plenty to occupy your time as well, no matter what your interests. Some people spend a whole year moving around this region and still feel like they’ve only scratched the surface. You can visit historic monuments: Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, Thailand’s Ayutthaya and Sukothai, Indonesia’s Borobudur and Prambanan, and Burma/Myanmar’s Pagan—for a start. You can scale volcanoes, raft raging rivers, trek through jungles, or snorkel and scuba dive somewhere new every week. You will stay at postcard-pretty beaches so perfect that you can’t believe you’re paying under $15 a night for your bungalow with a hammock.
With monks, exotic food, and strange languages all around you, it always still feels exotic, even if you do see a McDonald’s around the bend. Go from Buddhist monks at dawn to hill tribe markets to Chinese temples to grand mosques—all within the space of a couple weeks.
Angkor-Wat in Cambodia.
If you’ve got some money left for shopping, this part of the world is close to nirvana. Quality handicrafts are a bargain throughout most of Southeast Asia. If you have to go back home soon for a job, you can get custom-tailored business clothes made for less than off-the-rack prices in your own country. Nepal and Indonesia are trinket heaven, Bali and Kathmandu stocking thousands of exotic gift shops around the world.
Budget estimates are always difficult since people travel in very different ways. In relation to each other, however, the most expensive country in Southeast Asia is Singapore. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the popular beach areas of Thailand are in the middle. The lowest prices are in Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. There’s a rough correlation between comfort and price. Singapore and Malaysia are quite easy for travelers: transportation is efficient, people speak English, and you can usually drink the water. In Cambodia, Laos, and especially rundown Myanmar, it’s best to lower your expectations and not be in too much of a hurry. The situation is fluid though: the infrastructure in Cambodia is drastically better than it was a decade ago and you can now choose and book a place to stay onine in Myanmar—something unheard of there until 2012.
India and Nepal are two of the most popular countries for budget travelers, by many accounts two of the cheapest places on Earth for shoestring travelers. Far fewer venture to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, but prices are dirt cheap in those countries as well. Sri Lanka is attracting lots of new visitors to its beaches and nature reserves now that the civil war seems to be done for good. Tibet straddles many lines: it’s on the other side of the mountains and is technically part of China. Going there used to be arduous and somewhat expensive. Ironically, it is getting cheaper to visit as it becomes more accessible. Unfortunately, it's also more depressing as the true Tibetans get more marginalized.
India is a world unto itself, one of the most exhilarating and maddening places on the planet. Both here and in Nepal, the poverty, poor sanitation, animal-filled streets, and polluted cities can be difficult for some people to stomach. But if you can handle it (and millions of tourists do each year), you’ll be treated to fantastic sights, colorful characters, and bargain prices.
The region is full of bedraggled backpackers on a quest for something: spiritual renewal, the meaning of life, the ultimate high, love—or just a place they can get by for $10 a day. At the high end, however, tourism is booming in India, so it’s not uncommon to see fancy hotels going for $700 or more a night. Here more than anywhere outside Africa, travelers with a hefty budget see a very different side of the country than those on a shoestring.
As far as geographic variety goes, you’ll find it all in this area: white-sand beaches, jungles, deserts, endless plains, hillside tea plantations, and the stunning Himalayas. The cities range from magical princely kingdoms to colonial outposts to the teeming, smoggy craziness of Bombay, and Delhi. In the biggest cities, it's best to get your business done and get out. Head somewhere with lower prices, less traffic, and cleaner air.
As in most budget destinations, you can get anywhere you need to go without ever renting a car. The extensive train network in India is not fast unless you spring for an express train, but it is always an interesting experience. Buses cover everywhere else, including the Himalayas region stretching across several countries.
The Asia Pacific region is generally defined as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. For our purposes, we’re putting Mongolia and Russia in there as well.
Prices in this region are often no bargain, so many of the foreigners passing through are either on package tours or are going there to work. The region employs tens of thousands of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. Independent travelers can mitigate the high prices somewhat by avoiding the cities and heading into rural areas, especially in China, but this doesn’t make much difference in Japan or Korea.
It’s not hard to spend $120 a day in Japan and $70 or more a day in Korea or the cities of the other countries. Still, plenty of backpackers do visit the area, going to see working friends, exploring China at length, or making a short stopover because of a flight connection. The various routes of the Trans-Siberian Express attract a lot of people too, with some stops along the way having ample budget travel facilities.
Be prepared to deal with more of a language barrier in this part of the world, especially outside of the cities: definitely pack a good phrase book.
Resources and Links
In terms of guidebooks, they all have their ups and downs. The Lonely Planet ones are generally the best for budget travelers in Asia, but if you follow their recommendations you get stuck on a “Lonely Planet Trail” with thousands of other backpackers. So try others or if there are two of you traveling together, it can make sense for one of you to carry one from Moon, Rough Guides, Let’s Go, or another publication (Editors note: see the recommended books in the Living Abroad Recommended Books sections for each country for more.) Apps work fine for specific cities or short tours, but for the most part they're lacking the details beyond what you can glean from a few quick web searches.
The web sites above can also be good sources for planning information. They all give a little taste of the destinations and include some weather and money info. Lonely Planet’s site has the most active travel message board on the planet, with separate threads encompassing thousands of posts each for six different regions of Asia.
Travelfish.org is a great planning and articles site for Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and smaller islands in Southeast Asia.
To keep up with airline options in the region, check Skyscanner to see which airlines serve which routes, but also do some digging as some budget airlines don't share their info. In some cases, a local travel agent may have info you can't find online.
Tourism Office Worldwide Directory links to the official tourism sites for countries around the world, including all Asian destinations.
To see how your own currency is faring against the local one compared to the past (as in when your guidebook was published), go to Fxtop.com.
Need a place to crash, or want to spend some time with real locals? Try one of these international homestay programs: www.contrariantraveler.com/homestays.html.
Want to figure out what kinds of shots you might need? Consult a guidebook and go here for more up-to-date info:
TIM LEFFEL is the author of some classic books on budget travel and travel writing. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.