Planning a Trip:
Southeast Asia, like much of the world, can cost as little or as much as you're willing to spend. For example, if you choose to stay at dormroom-style hostels or family run guesthouses, travel on public transportation and eat from street vendors, you could easily keep your travel costs to less than $15 a day per person (often much less than that). Or if you're the type to dine out each night, drinking a lot of local beer, flying from one spot to another and staying at classic luxury hotels like the Peninsula in Hong Kong, expect to blow $500 a day. Most budget travelers, of course, tend to fall near the lower end of the spectrum. In our case, we assumed we would spend most nights in accommodations for $20 or less per night - comfortable midrange by local standards. Accommodations varied greatly for us - our cheapest night was at The Meeting Place in Nong Khai (150 baht - just under $5), while our most expensive night was at the Hawaii Hotel in Phnom Penh ($42 in U.S. cash). In practice, our average night stay was probably close to $17 dollars a night. This may seem like very little by US standards, but in places like Northern Thailand, this amount of money bought us clean and comfortable rooms in very pleasant surroundings.
On the whole, food rarely cost more than $10 per day between the two of us. It's easy to find decent, safe food at cheap prices across Southeast Asia, but it's nice to splurge every now and then. (In some places like Laos, "splurging" often equaled a five-course gourmet meal for about six bucks each). Bus and train transportation are equally cheap, and air transportation is often surprisingly affordable. Also remember to budget for souvenirs and airport departure taxes (sometimes as high as $10 or $20 to leave a country, and in Cambodia you pay in US cash only). Granted, these costs may seem negligible, but over the course of a month they can add up. In the end, though, you can have a great time and travel in relative comfort for as little as $30 a day if you plan things right.
Once you decide how much money to bring, you then have the question of how you wish to bring it. As a general rule, traveler's cheques are the way to go. They're secure and guaranteed in case of loss or theft. Just remember, though, in some places it may be hard to exchange cheques, so make sure you have enough cash on hand if you think it will be awhile before you can get to the next bank. In some inflation-plagued places like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, US dollars are often more prized than the local currency so it's not a bad idea to have some dollars with you. This is especially true for purchasing entry visas and paying exit taxes - you may not be able to get in to Laos or Cambodia without US cash. In Laos, Thai baht are also accepted widely if you don't feel like carrying around a lot of dollars. And in case you're thinking of bringing your ATM card, it's actually not a bad idea to do so. ATM machines are found all over Thailand, so they're a great way to get quick cash at the best possible exchange rate.
Copyright 1999 by Andy Carvin. No content may be copied without the author's permission.