By Laura Garcia 

Southeast Asia is a land of extremes, rich in culture and steeped in history. Its inherent beauty is found in its people, their determination, devotion, and hard work, and it’s reflected in their lavish temples. The warmth of their hearts is felt through their savoury cuisines, their kindness seeped in the intense sweetness of their teas. The health of its land can be heard reverberating through the music of its lush green jungles.

Whether you aspire to dance under the full moon in Thailand, dream of floating amidst the clouds in the majestic land of Myanmar, or hope to one day find your way to the secret beaches of the Philippines, Southeast Asia and its unceasing list of adventures awaits you.

Hostel Life

Hostels are to backpackers what peanut sauce is to chicken satay. Gone are the days of dirty, risky hostel environments where you question whether all the baht you saved, is really worth the discomfort. Spend just a few minutes Googling hostel stories and you can venture down a rabbit hole so deep you’ll need a local SIM card and a GPS signal to find your way out. 

The world of hostels is a vast one, ranging from unique “boutique hostels” to “party hostels” and even “family hostels.” There is something to suit everyone and every budget. So, do your research, read the reviews, and chose wisely. To save your travelling funds, keep an eye on organised group activities, take note of laundry facilities and other amenities, and most importantly, take advantage of the freebies. 

Vietnam Backpackers Hostel offers free breakfast like many hostels, but make sure you’re back in time for one very happy hour when the beer is free (rum and vodka too, depending on the location). The fun keeps poppin’ with nightly organised events and sometimes even free prizes. Their Saigon location offers a free shuttle transfer from the airport. While we’re counting your pennies, remember to pack a quick-dry towel, a reusable water bottle, and a few locks to save on rental charges. As my grandmother used to say: “Watch your pennies and the dollars will watch themselves.”

Whether you’re an introvert that prefers a cosy, laid back hostel oozing in charm, or a party animal looking to “woot-woot” your way from city to city, meeting people is part of the hostel experience. This is where you’ll find your tribe–other travellers who value memories over money and experiences over assets. Split a ride or take advantage of a group rate, keep your ears open and your tongue wagging and don’t miss out on those budget-saving opportunities. 

Couch Surfing

If you can sleep just about anywhere and are up for an authentic backpacking experience, ‘couch surfing’, or bunking with a local host, may be your ticket to a free night’s sleep. CouchSurfing.com offers a wide selection; but be sure to read the reviews, heed the advice, trust your instincts, and be sure you feel safe before turning in for the night.

The great thing about couch surfing is that you stay in a local’s home–your hosts are bound to know the area, so talk to them and ask them for suggestions on where to eat, and fun free things to do in the area. While your intention is to save money, remember, it’s good etiquette to buy your host a beer or pay for a small meal. When your stay is complete, remember that the site is based on references, so don’t be shy with some kind words.

Let’s Make A Deal

Haggling is an intrinsic part of Southeast Asian culture. It is a game of wills and skill, one in which they take great pride. Tourists take an automatic penalty as they are expected to pay more than a local. Remember this when you start your bidding and barter for everything with enthusiasm. If they hold up their preferred haggling tool–the calculator–and it’s showing a number you just can’t accept, erase it and enter your own. Check the price for the same item from different vendors and ask your hostel or couch-surfing buddies what they paid. Almost everything is negotiable, and you should have no assumption that a fair starting price has been given. As a good tourist, you should keep in mind that the aim here is to reach an equally fair price.

Planes, Trains, And Automobiles

Your hostel’s website will often lay out your options for how to get to the hostel as well as what you should pay. If you are hailing a cab, in some areas you may be able to locate a cab that uses a meter. If they do not offer a metered-cab, remember to negotiate the price before getting in.

Ride-hailing apps like NaviGo and Grab are generally less expensive than taxis and have the added benefit of a structured rate system–no negotiating necessary. Do your research to find out what apps are popular and relevant in the cities that you will be travelling, download them and set up an account before your trip.

Remember, time is money, the faster the journey, the more it’ll cost you, so immerse yourself in the culture and travel like a local. Grab a bus, a train, a ferry–or all three–and slow down to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. For long hauls consider an overnight bus or train and sleep in comfort as you save on a night’s accommodation. 

Localise

When travelling abroad, afford their culture the respect it so deserves by learning and following local customs. Take your shoes off at the door, cover your shoulders and your legs when visiting sacred places, and buy yourself some brownie points by learning a few key phrases of the local language.

While Western prices seem to be proliferating Southeast Asia, you can still eat, shop, and travel like a local. Although many of these costs are not likely to be found on Google, you can still do some competitive shopping and ask your friends about going rates. Don’t let math trip you up: keep your eye on the currency exchange rate and know how to calculate the price quickly to your standard currency to determine if you’re really getting a good deal. 

Travelling on a budget is a great opportunity for growth. It is a time to learn enough about yourself to make the right calls, pay attention to your values, listen to your heart, follow your gut, and do what is right for you. Plan to spend where you need to, where you will be glad that you did, and then be happy about saving everywhere else. Whether you treat yourself to a fancy dinner at McDonalds Next, book an activity that can’t be missed, or knock something off your bucket list, save, but don’t miss out because this should be the trip of a lifetime.

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