Backpacking in Southeast Asia on a Tight Budget

For first time travelers on a tight budget, I’d recommend backpacking around Southeast Asia. And to already well-traveled people, I’d also still recommend traveling around Southeast Asia. It’s easy, cheap, rich in culture and history, the people are very friendly, the food’s great, the mental people are still slightly tolerable, and most of all, it’s beautiful in most places. More and more backpackers travel around South East Asia every year, making it an easy place to get around as guesthouses have become more accommodating, a lot more travel agencies have actually become helpful, transportation has gotten better and English has become more widely used.

‘Easy’ doesn’t make it less interesting though so don’t get me wrong. There are so many interesting places around South East Asia – temples that are hundreds of years old, rice terraces that have been around for thousands of years, gorgeous beaches, some of the best diving destinations in the world, dramatic sceneries, stunning volcanoes, and some amazing hill tribes.

To travel around, here are some things you need to know:

VISAS

The visas required vary from country to country. You must definitely research which countries you require a visa before you start planning your trip. You must always remember that your passport must be valid for at least 6 months upon entering a country or you will be denied entry and most countries require an onward ticket!

  • Thailand: Most nationalities are granted a free 30-day visa upon arrival by air. If you enter by land, you must remember that you will only be granted 15 days! If you overstay, you will be fined 500baht per day.
  • Singapore and Malaysia: Most nationalities can enter without a visa.
  • Philippines: Most nationalities can get a free 21-day tourist visa. Visa extension can easily be done in a day and costs apply.
  • Vietnam: Citizens of Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Brunei do not require a visa. Other countries must obtain a visa in advance. Vietnamese Embassies around South East Asia can process a visa in a day or two.
  • Laos: Visa upon arrival valid for 30 days can easily be obtained ranging from 30$ to 45$ depending on your nationality. You must have a passport photo for visa processing. Citizens of South Korea, Japan, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Russia and ASEAN countries such as the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar are some of the countries exempted from visa.
  • Myanmar: You can apply for your Myanmar visa at Myanmar Embassies in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The visa processing can take 1 to 2 days. The price is around $30-$50.
  • Indonesia: Most nationals can apply for a Visa on Arrival upon entering Indonesia. It costs $25 for the length of stay of 30 days. Citizens of Brunei, Chile, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are some of the few that are allowed to stay for 30 days without a visa.
  • Cambodia: Visa on Arrival valid for up to 30 days costs around $20 and you will need a passport photo for the visa processing. Citizens of the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Thailand, and Indonesia do not require a visa.

Eating in Vietnam is great and cheap. A decent meal can cost as little as $2 in a restaurant.

Budget

No matter how cheap South East Asia can be, if you are not careful, you can easily blow all your budget. But don’t worry, you can travel around about $15 a day. And if you really want to push harder, even $10 a day is possible. Eat where the locals eat, travel how the locals travel, give up on the luxuries of A/C rooms, and be careful spending money on things that you can live without. Be stingy and be really really stingy. A $1 beer is a great deal but 10 beers later, you’ve already blown up more than half of your daily budget.

But if you are not on a budget and can afford to splurge a little bit, you can easily live like a star in South East Asia. A double room can cost only $4 in Cambodia, a Big Mac meal is only $2 in Malaysia, and a bottle of rum is only $1 in the Philippines. Keep in mind that sometimes what seems to be cheap may actually have been overpriced or overcharged by a local.  A $10 taxi ride may be acceptable to you but you’ll think differently once you find out later on that it should have been just $1.  Sometimes, we can only learn from our mistakes.

Wet Season

Having an umbrella makes it difficult for me to take photos. One of the reasons why I’d like to avoid the wet season as much as possible.

You must consider traveling or not traveling during the wet season in South East Asia. There is a reason why it’s called wet after all – it rains a lot. The good thing about it is the prices are lower since not many people travel around. It’s a lot cooler than the usual hot humid days during the dry season and it’s a lot less likely to get crowded in the usual touristy areas. The bad thing is it can rain a lot! You will get stuck indoors and your sightseeing will be delayed, canceled or at least be really really wet. If you do travel during this time, just remember it is most likely sunny and dry in the mornings and then it pours in the afternoons so plan well.

Safety

It is generally safe in South East Asia aside from remote areas of Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and East Timor where political unrest continues. Most troubles backpackers have gotten themselves into are by their own faults and idiotic minds. Be responsible when using alcohol and drugs. Oh, especially drugs. It’s not worth risking your life for. And if you insist, make sure you only get them from people you know. Strangers may set you up with the local police or they may be the police themselves and it will cost you a lot of money to get out of trouble or worse- imprisonment. Theft is pretty common but it’s easy to avoid by using your brain. Always have your valuables at all times with you, especially on overnight buses and trains, but never go out drinking with all your bank cards and passport on you, no matter if you say you are the master magician in drinking. Things can still go wrong and ending up in bed with a ladyboy may not be the worst that could happen.

It’s safe for women to travel alone, but be careful going out at night on your own, especially when you plan to have some drinks. Always keep a watch on your drink and don’t get too drunk.

Scams, such as ‘free’ tours, are pretty minor and easily avoidable. Most people are friendly and helpful, if you know how to watch out for the bad ones, then you’ll be perfectly fine.

Transportation

Most routes backpackers choose to travel are by land usually starting from Thailand or Malaysia going through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It’s cheap and buses crossing these countries are most frequent. Many miss out on the Philippines and Indonesia mainly because they are both countries made up of thousands and thousands of islands but cheap flights to these countries are available more than ever now. The most common mode of transportation is by bus and you must take note that crazy bus drivers are very usual. It’s not for the faint-hearted so you might consider flying instead. Take note of these budget airlines that fly around South East Asia (and beyond). Watch out for promo sales as international flights can go as cheap as $10!

  • AirAsia – The airline I’ve mostly used. It’s based in Kuala Lumpur with countless destinations on their list. Their promo sales are the best and the cheapest!
  • Tiger Airways – Cheap and if you are flying from Singapore, consider booking this airline.
  • Jetstar – Great destinations and prices are pretty good. They have affordable flights to and from Australia and New Zealand.
  • Cebu Pacific – A Filipino company, this airline can get you to Manila or Cebu from many cities in South East Asia and even from South Korea and Japan!
  • Lion Air – Great budget airline that you can consider when traveling around Indonesia.

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