Six years ago, I went backpacking through Southeast Asia for a whopping 9 months. I was amazed by how cheap it was!
During this entire journey, I was living totally off my savings and having an incredible time.
Ever since this epic trip, I’ve been going back to Southeast Asia nearly every year. It’s just such good value and the region is brimming with amazing places to visit.
If you’re making a budget for Southeast Asia, be warned though: not every country is equally cheap.
For example, it often happens that backpackers or budget travellers get used to the ultra-low prices in a country like Vietnam, but then go somewhere else and end up surprised.
Backpackers in the Philippines, for instance, often complain about how expensive the hotels and hostels are… even though it’s still a bargain by European or North American standards.
Prices also change over time. Cambodia has gotten a bit more expensive in recent years. Malaysia has gotten a bit cheaper. It often depends on currency exchange fluctuations and the level of development in each country. The numbers in this post are up to date for 2020.
P.S. Although I’m from Europe, I’ve put all the prices here in USD.
Average costs for Southeast Asia
On a longer trip, plan on spending about $35/day for one person on average, or about $1000/month. That’s traveling as a backpacker, using budget accommodation and eating mainly local food. This number does not count pre-trip expenses.
For two people sharing, a good rule of thumb is $60/day for two people, averaged across the region. You’ll typically save some money by sharing things like taxi rides or accommodation.
Of course, there are differences in costs everywhere. But if you’re traveling for several months, I find these daily averages are pretty consistent among most Southeast Asia budget travelers who stay in hostels or local guesthouses.
When I went to Southeast Asia for the first time, my pre-trip expenses were approximately $1150. I spent roughly:
- $200 on a travel backpack
- $100 on vaccinations
- $600 on my return ticket to Bangkok from London
- and the rest on travel insurance
If you don’t have a good backpack already, consider getting one. It’s going to be the most important tool on your trip. Have a look at my list of best travel backpacks if you need some tips.
Your plane ticket is likely your biggest pre-trip expense, so it’s also where you can potentially make the biggest savings. Be sure to read my tips on how to find cheap flights and set some price alerts on a flight search engine. It’s often easiest to find cheap flights to Bangkok or Singapore. Other key hubs are Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
As for travel insurance, I think it’s always worth having. It means you’ll be covered for medical emergencies, theft, cancellations, and other potential incidents. Keep in mind your medical insurance at home will not work in Southeast Asia.
I have an affiliate partnership with Heymondo, which I recommend. SafetyWing offers more basic coverage, but can be cheaper and better for long multi-month journeys. Whatever company you choose, it’s worth having a good travel insurance plan before you go.
Travel cost per country
Finally, let’s look at how much each country costs to travel, give or take. This is how I got these numbers:
- From my own travels in Southeast Asia
- By sampling and averaging prices from accommodation booking sites (budget-focused, removing outliers)
The suggested daily budgets assume you are a backpacker sleeping mostly in cheap rooms, using mostly overland transportation, eating mostly local food, and avoiding big resorts and upmarket hotels. As always, your mileage may vary.
|Country||Suggested Daily Budget|
|Thailand (southern beaches)||up to $50 – $60|
|Thailand (central / north)||$25 – $35|
|Laos||$25 – $35|
|Vietnam||$20 – $30|
|Cambodia||$20 – $30|
|Singapore||$40 – $80 (see notes)|
|Malaysia||$35 – $45 (more with tours)|
|Philippines||$35 – $45|
|Myanmar||$30 – $40|
In a nutshell: cheap in the north, close to Western prices in the south
Thailand has long been known as a backpacker mecca. But while the north around Chiang Mai remains one of the world’s cheapest places to travel, if you’re anywhere near a beach, expect to spend at least twice as much as in the regions further inland.
Dorm bed average: $12.50
Basic room average: $32.70
The gradually gentrifying backpacker district of Khao San still has some ultra-cheap dives ($5–8), but for a bed in a modern and reputable hostel with full amenities, the cost averages at about $12.50 a night. Thanks to ubiquitous street food, an efficient metro system, and cheap tuk-tuks, your overall budget for Bangkok won’t need to be high.
Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand
Dorm bed average: $7.40
Basic room average: $16.50
The north can be delightfully cheap. A dorm bed goes for as little as $6 a night here, though keep in mind such ultra-cheap places may expect you to also book tours with them (and will get cranky if you don’t). Decent rooms can be found for $12 (e.g. think bamboo bungalows). In Chiang Mai, $30/night can even get you a fantastic room with pool access.
Thai beaches & islands
Dorm bed average: $14
Basic room average: $39
The beaches attract plenty of tourists on a short stay and with money to spend, so it should be no surprise it’s more expensive here. Prices are also more sensitive to seasonality.
The average above does hide some significant outliers. Koh Phi Phi takes the cake with basic twin rooms normally costing $50–80 and many dorm beds exceeding $20/night. Arguably this island is a victim of its own success and not the best island to go anymore. On Koh Phangan, prices will easily triple on or around the date of the Full Moon Party, rising to at least about $15 for dorms or $40 for rooms, though some dorms near the Full Moon beach may cost as much as $40/night.
For somewhat cheaper and more laidback islands, go to Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe, Koh Chang, Koh Tao (for the most part), and many others.
Thailand in general
A meal from a street vendor or local restaurant should cost around $2 to $6 pretty much anywhere. Many activities are priced in the $10–20 range. For instance, half a day of cooking classes in Chiang Mai might cost you $20. Visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok costs about $13. In northern Thailand, a day of caving or trekking with a guide will set you back somewhere around $20 as well.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $30 a day (north) or $50+ a day (south)
In a nutshell: very inexpensive
Dorm bed average: $7
Basic room average: $24
Laos is incredibly cheap. If you’re traveling on a shoestring budget, you can find a dorm bed for as little as $5. Basic but nice rooms go for about $30, though if all you need is a purely functional room you can find them for as little as $12. The most expensive place is the UNESCO heritage city of Luang Prabang. Tourists from China fly in here, pushing prices up. Elsewhere, Laos is cheaper.
Entrance fees to parks and temples are typically in the single-digit dollars. A good rule of thumb for transportation cost is that every hour spent on a bus costs about a dollar, so a 10-hour overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane will cost somewhere around $10.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $25 to $35 a day
In a nutshell: very inexpensive
Hostel dorm bed average: $8
Basic private room average: $20
In Vietnam, money leaves your wallet at a syrupy slow rate. Despite a booming economy as of late, Vietnam’s currency against the USD and EUR remains very favorable. Vietnam might just be the cheapest country in Southeast Asia right now.
Entry fees to museums and national parks are rarely more than a dollar or two. If you wish to save on their meals will find that Vietnam is a street food paradise; just grab a little plastic chair at a roadside eatery for some delicious pho noodles (about $1 per bowl) or some passable local ‘fresh beer’ (about $0.20 per cup).
Among your big expenses is probably your entry visa ($45 for the visa itself and the stamping fee). Visas in Vietnam can get a bit complicated and, unlike other countries, often need to be arranged in advance. I recommend reading my Vietnam visa explainer.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $20 to $30 a day
In a nutshell: not quite as cheap as it used to be (but still cheap)
Hostel dorm bed average: $6
Basic private room average: $21
Cambodia is very welcoming to backpacker tourism, with $4+ dorm beds and $15+ twin privates being the norm. One exception is Siem Reap near the temples of Angkor Wat, which attracts more upscale tourists as well, but even here you’ll find a brilliant buffet of budget options.
Your biggest single expense is likely to be your entry ticket to the temple complex of Angkor Wat, which is $37 for 1 day and $62 for 3 days. Hiring a tuk-tuk to take you around the temples for a day costs around $15.
Some travelers complain that Cambodia is not as cheap as it used to be. The capital has developed rapidly and has gotten a bit more expensive in terms of food and drinks, for example. But in relative terms it’s still among the cheapest countries in the region.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $20 to $30 a day
In a nutshell: clutch your wallet, this place ain’t cheap!
Hostel dorm bed average: $24
Basic private room average: $60
Singapore is an ultra-modern city-state, where prices can be a shock for travellers coming from Indonesia or Malaysia. A dorm bed averages at $24 a night, which can be a whole day’s worth of budget elsewhere. At least the excellent metro gets you just about everywhere for a few bucks, and cheap and delicious food is available at big food courts called Hawker Centers. Luckily, there are a number of things to do in Singapore on a budget. Alcohol is taxed heavily so you may wish to avoid a big night out.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: it depends hugely. If you’re just transiting through you can keep it to $40–50 a day, but a lot of sightseeing, going out, or restaurant food can push this to $50–90.
In a nutshell: tours can be pricey, but otherwise excellent value for money
Hostel dorm bed average: $9
Basic private room average: $19
Malaysia is often misunderstood as an ‘expensive’ country as its oil wealth has made it among the most developed. But its currency against the USD and EUR has actually made it a relative bargain in recent times.
Day-to-day travel costs are reasonable and get you a lot of value in return. Hostels are modern and often equipped with AC but still charge around $10. Basic private rooms are available at essentially Vietnamese prices but with much better facilities. Hawker centers provide all kinds of delicious Malay, Indian, Chinese and Burmese dishes all in the $2 – $4 range.
That said, if you’re crazy about adventure activities, then be prepared to spend relatively more. For example, if your goal is to climb Mount Kinabalu on Borneo, a 2- or 3-day guided trek will easily cost several hundred dollars. Permits are limited and demand is high, pushing up prices for this bucket list experience (so be sure to book early). Similarly, a 2-day jungle river expedition in Kinabatangan park costs around $90, which is definitely more than it would have cost in some other Asian countries.
If you’re a party backpacker, you may be aghast to learn a half-liter beer costs about $3.50 and immediately scuttle back to Thailand. Though Malaysia is generally a more conservative country and not a party destination anyway. If you’re in Malaysia for the cultural sights or looking for a hammock on a quiet beach, then you’ll surely feel right at home.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $30 – $45 a day (increase this if taking many tours)
In a nutshell: Bali is super commercial, but Indonesia is budget-friendly overall
Hostel dorm bed average: $10.50
Basic private room average: $23
Bali is the main tourist hotspot, and southern areas like Seminyak and Kuta are popular with many short-stay tourists from Australia and elsewhere, so these places are the most commercialized and expensive. But head inland and prices already drop considerably. You can find wonderful bungalows and homestays at around $20 a night.
Entry fees for national parks or UNESCO sites such as Borobodur or Prambanan increased a few years ago. It typically was just a few dollars, but nowadays it’s around $10–15 (for international visitors only).
As with Malaysia, adventure tours can be more pricey compared to Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia. For instance, a 3-day tour of the Bromo and Ijen volcanos on Java will cost about $130 once you’ve factored in all the add-ons you need to buy (extra fees for a jeep ride, guide, etc.). A multi-day boat trip from Lombok to Labuan Bajo costs about $140. It’s well worth it, but it’s just a relatively larger expense than, say, the slow boat in Laos or boat trips to Ha Long Bay.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: about $30 to $40 a day
In a nutshell: high accommodation costs and likely need for domestic flights
Hostel dorm bed average: $12
Basic private room average: $26
When budgeting for the Philippines, there are some things to keep in mind. First, accommodation prices are definitely on the higher end for Southeast Asia. Second, since the Philippines is such a huge collection of islands, it’s not always possible to travel cheaply overland. Ferries between the islands may be impractically slow, so you often have to fly. AirAsia, Cebu Airlines, Zest Air, and other airlines do offer domestic flights at budget prices.
That said, entry fees to parks, wildlife sanctuaries, caves, and so on are typically in the $1 – $4 range, and guided tours and treks are all reasonably priced—around $10 to $15 for a day’s activities. An area where you’ll find some exceptions is Palawan, where a 2-hour tour of Puerto Princessa Underground River costs around $30, and a day of island hopping around El Nido costs about $30 as well (up from $10 a few years ago).
Boracay island is the Philippines version of Phuket or Bali (i.e. a more commercial holiday destination), but it’s more mid-range priced and still fairly backpacker-friendly.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: about $35 to $45 a day
In a nutshell: beware of higher accommodation prices
Hostel dorm bed average: $15
Basic private room average: $37
Myanmar is a bit of an odd duck in this list, as its accommodation costs are high relative to everything else. There is a reason for this: under the old pre-2012 regime Myanmar received very few visitors, so the country has historically had few hotels. High demand and a limited selection kept prices up. While many brand new hotels and hostels have opened in recent years—making things easier for budget travelers—accommodation costs do remain relatively high.
Other expenses like food, activities, and tours may be lower than you might expect based on the costs of accommodation. A 5-day pass to the temples of Bagan costs $20 (compare this to $60 for Angkor Wat in Cambodia). A train from Yangon all the way to Mandalay is just $15. You can rent a bicycle or motorbike to explore Bagan or Lake Inle for as little as $5 a day. With tourism still in relative infancy, fewer businesses charge hiked up tourist prices.
Suggested Backpacker Budget: $30 to $40 a day
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