A time comes, especially for us Australia/New Zealand working-holidayers, when your visa ends (this feels like the end of the world) and you don’t want to go home. For mostly all of us, South East Asia is on the way back so it just sort of makes sense to spend all of your hard earned cash traveling and see how long it lasts.
Looking back on it, it kind of seems like a crazy dream. I lived, breathed, traveled and worked for 6 months in South East Asia but then again, it was so easy. I often wonder why everyone doesn’t just pack up and travel.
Budget for my 6 Month South East Asia Backpacking Trip
Okay so to set things straight – backpacking South East Asia has changed and it’s not a place where you can live off of $10 a day anymore (that’s India!).
Realistically, $16 – $25 per day is a safe budget.
That’s traveling as a budget couple and splitting the cost of budget hotels with the occasional splurge. When I first saw that number on a fellow traveler’s blog, I almost had a heart attack but I bet that’s still dirt cheap for most people!
Roughly, I spent around $300-$750 Australian Dollars a month during my 6 month South East Asia Backpacking Trip.
My expenses were reduced the months we volunteered or were kindly treated like family by the locals. With this budget, we were not completely roughing but couldn’t afford some luxuries like a taxi or eating at Western restaurants. We thoroughly researched our every move – something not everyone has time or patience for either. I guess I should mention we also didn’t have the budget to see every sight. We had to skip on Angkor Wat (yup, that broke!).
It definitely is a luxury to be able to travel somewhere with even a months time at hand.
We had no time limits, no job to go back to, no dogs waiting at home, no home for that matter – we could travel in South East Asia forever if we wanted to (and it definitely crossed my mind).
So we just went with it. We had both spent time in Bali, Indonesia earlier and wanted to taste all of South East Asia starting from Singapore and making our way through each country overland. We knew we would visit Thailand and Vietnam and had ideas about Laos and Myanmar.
This is where it’s important to be flexible. We found an amazing volunteer opportunity at Biji Biji in Kuala Lumpur which required volunteers to stay a minimum of 2 weeks. TWO WEEKS in Kuala Lumpur – a place we had planned to stay for 2 days. But we decided to give it a go and it ended up being one of our most memorable experiences during our 6 month journey (we stayed for 3 weeks in the end here). Aside from meeting a ton of really cool locals and travelers, we had the opportunity to work for a cause we truly believe in. We made friends during our 3 weeks, who had family in Borneo and ended up spontaneously flying to Sarawak, Borneo to experience that rain forest in person (always a dream of mine)!
Next thing, we were in Northern Thailand where I took on a 14 day silent Vipassana meditation course at a Thai monastery and meanwhile Jonas found himself in the middle of the rice paddy fields practicing yoga. Then our funds got low and we changed plans and flew to HCMC, Vietnam where we taught English and lived in a sky-rise!
South East Asia can really be whatever you make it so it’s great to know what sites you want to see, countries you are fascinated with, and what you currently need at the time (do you need to lay on the beach? Or do you want to drive a motorbike through the mountainous hillside or go somewhere more remote?).
Make a rough outline of your trip. Usually it works to just mark it out country by country en route. Ultimately allowing yourself the freedom to be flexible.
The beautiful thing about South East Asia is that you can book your hotels, train and bus tickets as you go but a little visa knowledge and border crossing info goes a long way. We often used TravelFish to help us with guides and Agoda to book hotels.
Vaccinations and Hospitals in South East Asia
We didn’t get any vaccinations before we took off. No Malaria Tablets. Ask your doctor but for us the side effects outweighed the risk.
Howeverrrr, while we were in Malaysia, we did decide to get the Cholera Vaccination. Cholera is something you can get easily from poor sanitation and water hygiene. So we go to the local hospital and the Muslim women didn’t know what to do with me. I was wearing short shorts and it was a government run hospital so modest dress is in order. Too kind to turn me away, the ladies hurried me in and let us cut everyone else in the waiting room (so they wouldn’t have to stare at my legs for much longer!).
Moral of the story: If you forget a vaccine you can easily get one in Asia (and it’ll be cheaper).
Hospitals. Very important topic. These come in all forms! We’ve been to local village doctors who couldn’t speak a word of English and proceeded to prepare a miscellaneous shot and inject it in my boyfriend’s bottom! Dirt floors, dirty walls, and babies everywhere. But most of the time, you’ll be in state of the art facilities. Especially in Thailand and Vietnam. Fresh coconuts, chocolate cakes, live pianists, free wifi, leather couches and staff that speak 3 languages including your mother tongue better than you do. You’re in good hands.
The People of South East Asia
What is a place without its people right? The Thai say (as with everything) that South East Asia is “same same but different”. True, there are similarities country to country but I found the people to be very different in each of the countries we visited.
Here are my generalizations from our experiences:
Beautiful kind people. We absolutely loved the Balinese and everything about their culture. You can find some very pushy hawkers in Kuta, but the true Balinese are beautiful people. Without many possessions, they are humble, gentle-spirited and generous. As we were walking through a local village, a small family who lived in a hut by the ocean with dirt floors, invited us in their home. They made us Balinese coffee, offered us delicious snacks, and we laughed about the chickens running around in the yard. We could not speak very much English together, but we understood through some gestures that we were invited to their big ceremony the next day. They dressed the two of us up in their festival clothes and we came back the next day for a day of celebrations.
Thailand was sort of a bummer for us. We had been told by fellow travellers that the people of Thailand are so kind, so wonderful and everything is beautiful (and so cheap!)…That was all kind of really wrong for our experience of Thailand. The people were quite jaded by tourism in the bigger cities and mainly would only deal with you if you offered them enough money. Even in the North, Chiang Mai region, the people – even some of the monks – were hard to deal with. However there were definitely a handful of good eggs like our yoga instructor and a few people we met at our favourite restaurants and things like that.
We lived in the South of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon) for 2 months and I can definitely say the people are wonderful in the South of Vietnam. There’s not much aside from Saigon in the South for tourism really except for the Mekong Delta (which was 100% overrated). A visit to Saigon is definitely in order. Go to the local districts, away from District 1, and see how wonderful you are treated. The people are so kind with big smiles and genuinely interested in how you are.
Malaysia also has some of the nicest people and best food in South East Asia. I don’t know why more people don’t travel there. It is also one of the cheapest. There are beautiful islands that aren’t over touristed like the ones in Thailand and every meal is a little trip to heaven.
I absolutely loved Borneo. We stayed with a beautiful Bornean family who taught us the unique history of the island and treated us like family. It was the only time we had this feeling in our 7 months of South East Asia. They truly respected us as one of their own. For me, Borneo was the most memorable experience in South East Asia.
Singapore: We were only in Singapore for 2 days so it is hard to say on this one.
Accommodation across South East Asia
Bali wins in the accommodation department.
The hotels in Bali are absolutely stunning. For a bit of a haggle and $35-50 dollars you can really stay at a 3-5 star type accommodation. Yes, you do have to haggle. We were able to talk down prices from $100 to $35 a night. We asked for a student discount which doesn’t make much sense in Bali, but there is something about the Balinese that loves a great haggle.
Singapore is famous for being the most expensive in South East Asia accommodation wise. Expect around 25-50 per night for a very mediocre 1-2 star hotel.
Vietnam, Malaysia and Borneo are very affordable with great options for $10 a night.
We had no problem finding decent accommodation for under $10 a night in these countries. You usually get something like this.
Thailand was a bit of a struggle
but we managed to find $15 decent accommodation in most places and it got easier (err cheaper) in the North.
BED BUGS IN SOUTH EAST ASIA are real and absolutely the worst. Even a luxury hotel has them. We had encounters and for your own sanity, I seriously recommend thoroughly checking the bed of your hotel before you make your booking. For this reason, we booked most of our accommodation day by day and in person. I would actually go to a popular hotel strip that I had researched on TravelFish or Lonely Planet, go into each recommended hotel, ask what their price range was, then ask to be escorted to the room. In the room, I would actually pull the bed cover off and examine the mattress. This may sound crazy but it’s really not. I found bed bugs in many hotels this way and it saved our lives for that moment in time. Look in the crevices of the mattress all the way around one corner and side. Pull a part the material and if you see movement, tiny brown bugs or larger black or brown bugs, GTFO!
Sometimes you may not have the option of sleeping elsewhere. For instance, if you are truly backpacking it and staying at a local home or a monastery. In this case, I carried a bottle of essential oils diluted in water. My mixture included lavender (a great bed bug repellent), tea tree and eucalyptus oils. Spray on the mattress in crevices and corners. Spray on all the zippers of your bags. Bed bugs love crevices and often go to rest and lay eggs in backpack zippers. Yuck , yuck yuck next topic.
Overall, How was our 6 month backpacking trip?
It is so easy to feel at home or a sense of belonging in South East Asia. The people really welcome you and there aren’t many barriers to forming relationships. Anything you want to do is within reach and your trip can be whatever you make it. To be honest, what I really miss about South East Asia is the food and the fruits. The food of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam especially.
Did I miss anything? What are your tips for South East Asia backpackers?