Thailand has for many years been a favourite destination for those travelling on a budget. Cheap hotels, cheap food, cheap drink–well, cheap everything draws in millions of poor backpackers every year; each intend to spend as little as possible while having the time of their lives. In this post, you’ll learn how you can live off $20 a day on your Thailand trip.
Many backpackers, though, end their Thailand trip with a bank balance much less healthy than they expected. Lavish meals, nights on the town and nice hotels all take their toll, and the experience often little resembles the cheap Thai holiday the travellers envisioned.
So, you’re coming to Thailand for a couple of weeks or months, and you want to know how to make your slender budget travel as far as possible. Here’s how you can stretch your budget as you enjoy your vacation in Thailand.
First, let’s deal with the largest expense you’ll face in Thailand. While Thai hostels can be incredibly cheap for those who choose to stay in a dorm room, if you want the comfort and privacy of a private room, the costs can quickly spiral. For instance, my favourite hostel in Bangkok, Lub d in Silom, charges 1,500 Baht per night ($50) for a double room with a private bathroom. As hostels go, it’s a lovely one and a lovely room, but 1,500 Baht per night? $1,500 for a month-long stay? This is well beyond the budget of most backpackers, and it isn’t that much more expensive than any other Bangkok hostel.
If you can’t stomach the idea of bunking with a group of strangers, by far the best way to keep down the cost of accommodation in Thailand is to arrange a long stay in one place. Many hostels and guesthouses offer significantly reduced rates for long term visitors. Outside of Bangkok (where demand – and prices – are always relatively high), it’s possible to bring down the daily cost of accommodation to as little as a few dollars.
Based on a bit of research in the surrounding area, the average rate for a monthly rental in Thailand seems to be approximately the same as that of a stay of ten days. So, the best way to drive down the cost of accommodation while visiting Thailand is to settle in one place for a while. If you plan to stay longer than ten days, it makes sense to negotiate a monthly rate.
The gulf in pricing between Thai food and western food can be vast in Thailand. For example, a meal in a basic Thai cafe or restaurant should set you back no more than around 50 Baht, while a meal in a western restaurant will present a bill of at least 200 Baht.
Now, I’m not a great fan of Thai food in general. While there are a few dishes I love, I couldn’t imagine eating Thai for every meal. For the traveller on a budget, though, it makes sense to eat at least one Thai meal each day. For the price of a T-bone in a local steakhouse, I could buy 30 meals at the street cart in front of it. If you’re on a budget, this is a no-brainer.
One thing that surprised me the first time I visited Thailand was that the price of alcohol was much higher than I expected. My head was filled with the idea of 50 pence beers, but when I arrived, I was met with bar after bar after bar charging 100 Baht for a large bottle of Singha.
If bars are your thing, there’s little to do about the relatively high cost of drinking, but if you’re willing to forego the dance floor, you can halve the beer bill by stocking up at the local 7-11. In Chiang Mai, you can often find a crowd of revellers loitering at the front of the local 7/11 with a bag full of 50 Baht beers.
Those travellers searching for a cheap night out could do worse than connect with expats and other long term residents through sites such as Couchsurfing and TravBuddy. Both sites are popular with westerners living in Thailand, and if there’s one thing you can expect from a long term western resident, it’s that they’ll know the cheapest drinking holes in town.
Finally, the thorny issue of Thai public transport. In this case, the issue of money comes down to a simple question of convenience. At hotels, hostels and guesthouses across Thailand, you’ll be able to book bus, coach and train tickets directly from the front desk, but this service comes at a cost.
First, you will no doubt pay a small booking fee on top of the ticket price. Second, many hotels and hostels will provide tuk-tuk transport to the bus or train station at a premium. The costs quickly add up, and it’s not rare for a bus ticket to cost twice as much when booked through a hostel as it would if you bought the tickets directly.
For the cheapest transport around Thailand, you should always book directly at the station.
In Bangkok, this will mean travelling to Mo Chit bus terminal or Hua Lamphong train station. Both places may seem intimidating on your first visit, but both have English speaking staff on hand to assist the tourists who pass through the stations each day. Hua Lamphong station, in particular, has an excellent team who wait near the ticket desk to advise travellers of their options.
Dealing with your tickets directly is more than worth the extra hassle when you can bring down the cost of your ticket from 700 to 300 Baht. For example, if you booked a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai through your hostel, the price would be approximately 800 Baht (750 for the ticket plus a 50 Baht booking fee). For this, you would get a second class air-conditioned berth.
However, by visiting Hua Lamphong and speaking to an attendant, you would discover that you could take the same train by the third-class hard seat for just 231 Baht. A little less comfortable, certainly, but also around a quarter the price.
How Low Can You Go?
So, with accommodation, food, drink and travel included, just how much should you budget for a trip to Thailand?
For an absolute bare-bones, no-frills, living-like-a-Buddhist-monk month-long trip to Thailand, you can survive in relative comfort on a little less than 17,000 Baht. Here’s the breakdown:
A month-long stay in a hostel (6,000 Baht)
Food – three Thai meals each day (4,500 Baht)
Drinks – 4 bottles of beer, three times a week (4,800 Baht) (or 2,800 Baht from 7-11)
Travel – 2 cross country train rides in second class (1,500 Baht)
Total 16,800 Baht ($560)
Is this possible? Yes. Would I recommend you travel on such a low budget? Probably not.
Thailand is a beautiful, fascinating and unique travel destination, and to come here for a month only to hide out in the same hostel and eat the same food day in, day out would be to do the country a disservice.
Sure, live cheaply. Choose pad thai over steak, live in a dorm and travel with the locals on a third-class hard seat. Just set aside a little something for the occasional treat. The second class carriages on the trains are very nice.
Before your Thailand trip, it’s essential to brush up on local information: customs, culture, food, drink and every little thing that makes Thailand Thailand.