What I've Learned From Backpacking Southeast Asia on 20 USD Per Day

Friday, May 08, 2015

People who decide to travel around the world aren’t any more special or richer than those who just daydream about it. They simply made the decision to allocate some time to travel and take calculated risks.

Some are on a gap year, some are in between jobs, while some have just made the choice to quit their careers entirely without having a plan. The only thing that really sets them apart from everyone else is the fact that they booked a ticket, packed their bags and are living one day at a time.

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No one’s really got it all figured out from Day 1.

How to pack your backpack

The only investment you’ll ever need is a good backpack. I can’t believe I would ever say this, but you don’t really need to buy anything before your big trip especially if you are on a tight budget. You should already have most of the things you need! I used old resealable plastic bags to organize my stuff and refilled travel size 100 ml toiletry bottles. The only thing I bought for this trip was a bulky Lonely Planet SEA on a Shoestring Budget guidebook and found it completely useless so I left it within 2 weeks of backpacking around Vietnam. Surprisingly, I found it at every other place I stayed at.

Limit your load to 20% of your bodyweight to avoid back problems and extra luggage costs when flying. I am 36 kilos and only brought 7 kilos on my 6 month Southeast Asia trip and that was the best decision I’ve ever made. I didn’t find it a hassle to move around every few days, or to simply find little things in my backpack. If you are tired of wearing the same clothes or don’t need certain things any longer, consider donating them to the local community, exchanging with fellow travelers or sending them back home.

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Anything you’ll ever need will be available at your destination, maybe except for prescription meds and oral contraceptives. For instance, when I traveled to Myanmar, I didn’t expect that it was gonna be cold, so I bargained for long sleeved tops and printed drawstring pants for only 3 USD each at the Yangon market. In Koh Tao, Thailand I rented snorkeling masks and fins for 2 USD per day as well. I never needed them anywhere else, so it would’ve been totally useless to carry them around. The rock climbing lessons I took in each country was inclusive of all the required equipment. 

Most importantly, learn to wash your own clothes, it will save you some money that you can use to splurge on the occasional beer or massage.

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Get the right travel advice

I found myself relying on word of mouth advice from fellow backpackers and updated travel blogs. Websites such as TripAdvisor, SkyScanner and Hostelworld also helped tremendously. Everyone is trying to save on costs, so don’t be embarrassed to offer to share tuk-tuk rides, meals and accommodation. It’s more fun that way anyway!

You don’t need to buy a sim card at every country you visit as well. Wi-fi is available at most places, and it’s quite healthy to get off the grid occasionally. Keep a journal of your most private thoughts, stick some maps, beer labels and bus tickets on it to make it more memorable.

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To book or not to book?

You really don’t need to book your accommodation ahead of time, except - when you’re arriving late at night and the reception desks are closed and when it it’s super peak season like Songkran in Chiang Mai. Some of the better places to stay at cannot be found on the internet.

A friend Jay and I braved the dizzying eight hour bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng without any reservations so we had to settle for a cheap guesthouse in the busy town central for a night. The next morning we decided to cross the bridge and walk to the other side of the river and found a lovely hut on the rice fields for 8 USD. We shared the cost and ended up staying for almost two weeks at Otherside Bungalows and it was one of the highlights of our trip!

Golden tip: Everything is negotiable if you learn to bargain in a friendly but firm manner.

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Eat like a local

Being highly adaptive to the local food and products will save you loads of money. I realized that one of my biggest expenses was comfort food. I’d pay 1 USD for one sad little piece of extra bacon. I craved for good red wine and pasta every week too! With the exception of Papa Pippo’s at Otres beach in Cambodia, it’s just not the same.

I’ve had discussions with local cooks everywhere complaining that their carbonara wasn’t the same carbonara that my Italian teacher taught me at culinary school. Of course not, silly me! One meal at a western restaurant for instance could be equivalent to three local meals which is just as good or even better! To truly experience a country means enjoying the local food too. Don’t worry you’ll get used to how spicy everything is!

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Presence vs. Planning

Your presence is more valuable than planning too far ahead. I found that the people who enjoyed their travels the most are the ones who do not follow strict itineraries. Don’t aim to visit 6 countries in 3 months. Don’t stress about timing all your activities perfectly, unless you are just checking off a bucket list. That is not the essence of travel anyway. You might find more satisfaction in completely engaging and losing yourself in these rare experiences.

By slowing down, you are able to be more present in every moment. You will have time to bond with the locals and maybe even forge lifelong friendships with your fellow travelers as well. Why rush to the next town or country if you are having the time of your life and learning new things where you are? Leave some time be be completely spontaneous! Visa extensions and visa runs are always possible for a small fee, no matter what kind of passport you hold.

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Conserve your energy 

Reserve your limited energy for what really matters to you. The party scene is indeed a huge part of the backpacking culture in Southeast Asia. However, if it’s not your thing, if you’re completely over it, don’t force yourself to go out every night to drink. You’ll only be wasting precious money that can be spent on other things you’ll enjoy more. I met lots of people who felt exactly the same way as I did. We woke up earlier than everybody else, had more energy for physical activities and explored further destinations beyond the tourist trail.

Who needs a hangover when you’re trekking to the most beautiful waterfall in the middle of the jungle the next day anyway? Meet people whom you can bond with even when you’re completely sober and you might just have more meaningful memories to look back on.

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Additional Safety Measures:

-Wear your money belt under your clothes

-Have another small wallet in your pocket or purse for easier access

-Always bring some crisp US Dollars just in case the ATMs are out of service

-You have more bargaining power when you have smaller denominations of the local currency

-Upload scanned copies of your passport, visas, tickets and other important documents on Google Drive or Dropbox just in case you lose them

-Explore unfamiliar towns and cities with people from your hostel and look out for each other

-Be aware of each country’s culture so you can dress and act appropriately

-Make sure you always stay sober enough to find your own way home or bed

Have you traveled on a budget? Did it limit or enhance your experience? Please share in the comments!

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Same same but different,
Sole Sis Adi

Adi escaped from the corporate world so her life now happily revolves around yoga and travel. She lives a simple, eco-friendly lifestyle and inspires those around her to do the same. She shares her AntiGravity and yoga practice everywhere she goes and dreams of building rustic Secret Spot hostels in beautiful tropical destinations. She's currently on a Southeast Asian adventure with no end in sight. Follow Adi's adventures on Love the Search and on Facebook and Instagram.


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1 sole trails

  1. This post makes me want to pack my backpack and go!


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