RTW Budget Update: Southeast Asia

Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Part 1: Major Transportation

Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.

  • Estimated Expense: $2,400
  • Actual Expense: $1,358
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042

Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.

Part 2: In-Country Costs

  • Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997

But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.

  • Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787

We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.

True Cost for Southeast Asia: $46 / day / person

Snorkeling in Ang Thong Marine Park
Kayaking through caves near in Krabi Province in Thailand
Full bar at Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangok

How to Overspend in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, I want to say we were young and naive. It was several years ago, in 2011, and we were only 24 years old. We were starting to make more money in our respective careers and our pockets were as deep as ever. So when we visited Thailand with three other close friends, our spending habits were never kept in check. It was a short trip of course, just 12 days. And in those 12 days, we spent more than we would on our current “long-term” travel budget in over a month.

The beautiful skyline of Bangkok, where it’s too easy to spend, spend, spend…

I found some notes on our spending, and part of me feels ashamed and maybe a little taken advantage of. On the positive side – I feel better now that we know better. We know how much things should cost and we know how to make our dollars work for us.

Looking at these numbers of past travels, it made me realize why so many locals try to scam the farang (Thai for western foreigners). On recent travels there have been all too many times where a taxi driver refused to take us when we asked him to run the meter, where a tuk-tuk tried to charge two to three times the going rate for a ride, and where we’ve walked by and peeked at the menus overpriced tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s just too easy for these guys to pass you up for a more unsuspecting visitor.

That’s exactly what we were on our first trip. Unsuspecting. Too charmed by the big smiles of the locals to think twice. And boy did they have their way with us.

Here’s a few notes that I found about our spending:


A big bottle of Singha beer from 7-11 for 55 baht ($1.69)

Our first night in Bangkok we arrived pretty late, about 11pm. Worn out by nearly 24 hours of travel, we asked the hotel for a place to go to grab a drink. We were in Silom. Just go down this road, turn right, and there’s a night market. We walked in the night and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Before long we had arrived at the night market. Turns out we were in Patpong. One of the seedy centers of Bangkok’s red light districts.

We sat down, ordered five Chang beers (the favorite of backpackers), and watched the working girls try to entice customers.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 800 baht (160 baht each) + a 25% tip = 1,000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: At a 7-11, five cans of Chang would cost 175 baht (35 baht each). At a normal bar, it would go for about 250 baht (50 baht each) + 10 – 20 baht as a tip = 270 baht (~$8.50).

Tipping for Tours

In Chiang Mai, we did a tour that included an elephant camp (which we shouldn’t have done in the first place, but that’s a story for another day), a ride on a bamboo raft, a nice lunch, and a nice minibus to drive us around for the day. The tour cost was a little overpriced, but not grossly. We spent 8,755 baht total, coming in at about 1,750 baht each for the day.

But here’s where we spent too much – tipping the driver and our guide for the day.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 500 baht for the guide + 500 baht for the driver = 1000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: Thai people do not tip often. When they do at restaurants, it’s likely only leaving the change and maybe 20 baht maximum. Although now with western influence, and likely due to America’s extravagant tipping culture, many locals working in the tourism industry come to expect a tip. Nowadays, I would go with something much more modest – 100 or 200 baht for the guide (if they were really good) and maybe 100 baht for the driver = 300 baht maximum (~$9.25).


While in Phuket, we were lucky enough to have a Thai friend set us up with a beautiful room in a luxury resort for something like $40 a night. Just 1/4 or 1/5 the going rate for the room. But with a luxury room, comes luxury prices on everything else.

We had our laundry done at the hotel. Of course, being a nice hotel, they charged by the piece. Shirts had a fixed rate, shorts had a fixed rate, underwear, socks, and so on and so on.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 1,350 baht (~$41.75) for a couple of day’s worth of clothing for five people.
  • The Real Cost: Most local shops in Thailand do laundry based on weight. Some charging as little as 20 baht / kg and some as much as 50 baht / kg. For several day’s worth of clothes, I’m guessing we had about 5 kg max. At an average rate of 35 baht / kg, that bag of laundry should have only cost us 175 baht (~$5.50).


Kanom Jeen found at a local market for 20 baht ($.60)
Nam Prick Aung at a local restaurant for 70 baht ($2.15)

They say Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. It’s true, you can eat great food for real cheap. But for a first time visitor, this can be intimidating. Some worry about cleanliness, some worry about the sheer act of sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, and some worry about not knowing how to order. So they eat in fancy tourist-oriented restaurants, with English speaking staff, English menus, and pretty decorations.

One meal at this same luxury resort I mentioned, was all that. Albeit delicious, it cost us a small fortune. We ate in a private room and we had dish after dish of excellently prepared Thai food brought to our table.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 7,000 baht to feed 8 people (875 baht / person).
  • The Real Cost: There is such a wealth of food options to satisfy any budget. On the street we can eat for 50 baht / person. At a local restaurant, we can eat 100 baht / person. Even at a nicely decorated, modern restaurant, we can eat for 200 baht / person.


Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are notorious in Bangkok for trying to overcharge. Taxis don’t want to run their meters and tuk-tuks want to charge double or triple the going rate. We were staying in Sukhumvit and wanted to go to the boxing match at Lumphini Stadium. It’s just a short 4km drive and we jumped in the first taxi that was willing to take us.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 250 baht.
  • The Real Cost: Taxis in Bangkok are super cheap if you can get them to run the meter and take a reasonable route to your destination. Frankly, I think the reason that taxis try to overcharge so much is that the meter rate is just too low. A four km ride should cost you 35 baht for the flag, including the 1st kilometer, and then just 5 baht for each additional kilometer. Total cost for 4 km = 50 baht.

Note: In comparison, the going rate in Vietnam is about 12,000 dong for the flag (19 baht) and then 16,000 dong per kilometer (25 baht). Seriously, Bangkok: you need to raise your taxi rates.

Foreign Transaction Fees and ATMs

This last misstep isn’t a Thailand problem, but a global problem. Banks in the US are notorious for finding a way to charge fees for nearly everything they can. And for an expensive international trip, these fees can add up.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: $5 for each ATM withdrawal; 3% on all credit card transactions.
  • The Real Cost: Now that we are on a long term trip, we managed to find ways to avoid these fees. Imagine if we had to pay 3% in foreign transaction fees on $10,000 in spend – $300 in unnecessary costs. Instead, we have credit cards that do not charge this fee at all. No foreign transaction fees anywhere. Kristin’s Capital One VentureOne card has no annual fee. Mine, however, charges $85 annually, but I get all sorts of good stuff from Marriott that makes up for that fee. In addition, we have a checking account through Charles Schwab that refunds all of our ATM fees. So the real cost of bank fees for traveling internationally – $0.

Hanoi’s Secret Courtyard: Cafe Pho Co

Tucked behind a tourist’s t-shirt shop and silk store is one of Hanoi’s not-so-secret coffee shops, except for the fact that it’s easily missed by the casual walker-by. It sits near a congested traffic “circle” in the old quarter, which is surrounded by numerous other similar shops enticing customers with a lakeside view.

But Cafe Pho Co, isn’t out front trying to lure the crowds in. It’s hidden behind these shops, down a dark alley, behind some bird cages, past a bonsai tree, and up several stair cases. Walking in you’ll feel like you’re intruding because in most similar alleys around Hanoi you’ll find local residences. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one family residing behind the doors of this cafe.

We ordered at the bottom of the stairs, for me- a Vietnamese egg coffee. Super creamy, lots of sweet, but not enough kick for me. Either way, we enjoyed the view, sipped on my dessert of a coffee and peaked around to find the various eccentricities of the place.

Hidden out in the open…
… and down a dark alley…
… behind some bird cages…
… up several staircases…
… awaits a great view!
… and some Vietnamese style egg coffee.

Angkor Wat: If You Can’t Beat Em,’ Join Em.’

Visiting Angkor Wat is like going to Disneyland: it’s expensive, it’s hot, there’s a lot of walking, and there’s people everywhere.

Good luck beating the crowds in Angkor!

We tried to think of strategies to escape it, but alas, they just don’t exist. And we’re usually pretty good at avoiding the crowds. Here are some tips to make the most out of your experience, even when there will always be 1000 people around you at any given point.

1. Buy a multi-day pass. I don’t know if anyone goes to Siem Reap for just one day. Highly unlikely. If you buy a 3 day pass or a weeklong pass it’ll be less expensive in the long run. Also consider that if you visit for sunset after 5pm, the ticket does not need to be validated for the day, but instead will get stamped on the next.

Quiet sunset on the eastern perimeter of Angkor Wat

2. Eat cheap. There are a ton of restaurants in Siem Reap, almost all of them catering to tourists. That means that most of them are more expensive because, well, they can get away with it. There are some restaurants that aren’t too bad, most of them around the old market area. These will only set you back $2-$3 a meal as opposed to $5-$7 which may not be much, but over a few days it adds up to something.

3. Shop around for a tuk tuk driver. There are tuk tuk drivers everywhere in Siem Reap, and while they may be easy to find, they put up a pretty hard bargain. We managed $15 for the small circuit (day 1), $23 to Banteray Srei along with a few others in the small circuit (day 2), and $35 to Beng Melea, the Roulos Group, and Phnom Bakeng (day 3). That is compared to probably $20, $30, and $40 some people (or cars) were trying to charge for the same things, respectively. Do keep in mind – these guys work hard for their money; they work to put a roof over their head, food on the table, and to send their kids to school. Ask your hotel for rates, ask drivers on the streets for rates, and come up with a number that works for you. Don’t get ripped off, but please don’t get worked up over a dollar or two.

An early morning ride on our tuk-tuk / chariot with our driver, Mr. Pich

4. Pack breakfast or lunch. There are small shops around most temples offering food, drinks, hats, etc. but the temples are also less busy around lunch so if you pack your own it’ll probably be less expensive and maybe a little less crowded. Same for breakfast if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat or any other temple for that matter. Bring some apples and peanut butter or muesli and yogurt and eat your breakfast while watching a beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat.

5. If you want to go to Phnom Bakeng and not be in the midst of hundreds try going around 2-3. We went at this time and we were there with only six other people. It may not be sunset, but I prefer less people to explore than the sun going down.

6. Banteay Srei is absolutely worth the drive. Hands down my favorite temple. Go.

Banteay-Srei- the beautiful details.
The big picture at Banteay-Srei.
A picture framed picture.

7. Beng Melea is far. Two hours by tuk tuk each way. I really wanted to go but Nick hemmed and hawed over the price. On top of the tuk tuk you pay $5 each for entry and then have to tip a guide once they show you around. We got there very early. 8AM. And while this a less travelled to temple, as we were leaving there were busloads of people, probably at least six huge tour buses, a dozen minibuses, and a handful of cars and tuk tuks, dropping people off. If you go when there are tons of people there it’s definitely not worth it. If you go, go in the morning when you basically have the place to yourself.

A real root takeover.

Hop Along