Last year, my soon-to-be-wife Karla and I spent 10 months in SE Asia and 2 months in Mexico. We travelled from Canada to Mexico and back to Canada for our big departure overseas. We had about $30,000 for the both of us and came back with basically nothing.
We spent less than $1500 per month each (including all our flights) but had the time of our lives. We spent thousands on world-class scuba diving and didn’t hesitate to spend money on any experience we felt was special.
The most amazing and life-changing travel is cheaper than living an auto-pilot life in a developed country.
The cost of a car can send you on a thrilling adventure all over the world for three years. The cost of a house can send you all over the world for the rest of your life. Crazy right?
I’m not exaggerating either. If the only idea you have of travel is 5-star hotels, spas, buffets and pure comfort, then this post is probably not for you, unless of course you’re looking to expand your horizons. While 5-star resorts can be beautiful, it’s not real travel. This is more of a “vacation”. Vacations are what most people take to take a break from the busy life they half-hate living at home. It’s great for a momentary brain-cleanse but in the two times I’ve done it, I was bored to tears after three days. It’s like flying all the way to another country without actually experiencing the country. It’s like going to a hotel in your own country filled with the same people but with a better view. Whether you like this sort of thing or not, make sure you try at least one independent trip to a developing country before you die.
For the sake of this post, I’m talking about real travel. Independent travel. The kind of adventure you read about it and go, WOW!
The kind of travel that changes your life with endless memories and exciting stories to tell. The kind that isn’t always comfortable but is always an experience and an adventure. The kind that educates you in ways you’ll never experience elsewhere.
The kind that only costs $15,000 a year.
Karla and I experienced a full year of travel to Mexico, China, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia, Borneo, Thailand, and Burma.
Our total price was $30,000. $15,000 each.
Keep in mind – This INCLUDES $2000 each for the return ticket from Canada (two one-ways), the cost of over 20 flights between said countries, and about $4000 in scuba diving.
It can be cheaper than this and it can be more expensive if you want it to be.
For the most part, we ate from awesome restaurants or from street vendors. We stayed entirely in guesthouses (never a dorm room), rented an apartment for 4 months, went to movies, did some shopping and most of all – never shied away from spending money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Scuba diving was by far our biggest investment.
We moved from place to place every three days or so. We did A LOT of moving. We wanted to see and experience a lot of the country and would spend about 3-4 weeks in each country. If you want to keep it cheaper, travel less. Transportation, although cheap, adds up after a while.
If we were to just stay in one or two places in Thailand (a beach or one of the cities), our monthly living cost would only be around $750 for both of us! This is for a nice comfortable guesthouse or apartment and 3 meals every day at restaurants or from street vendors. As far as food goes, it’s way better than we can on this side of the world!
Laos was the cheapest place for accommodation (about $6 on average). Thailand had the best food. Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have amazing beaches. The Philippines is #1 for English. All the countries are friendly but Myanmar (Burma) wins the prize. Laos was the best place to see tiny villages and minorities, although Myanmar was great for this as well. Cambodia has amazing ruins and the cheapest beer. Myanmar was like going back in time 100 years. I went to university in Malaysia for 4 months and the food was incredible and super cheap. Thailand has incredible local shopping. Borneo has amazing wildlife despite shocking deforestation. Indonesia has incredible volcanoes and landscapes. China is crazy but full of ancient cities and UNESCO sites. Mexico City is one of the coolest cities on the planet.
SE Asia is quite possibly the safest place on earth to travel. It’s very easy and very straightforward. I can’t think of a better place to get started on independent travel. If you have any questions, send me an email.
Just to give you an idea of the costs involved, I’m going to use Thailand as an example.
Return flight from Canada: $1200
Average cost of a nice room in a guesthouse: $10 ($15 in cities). Staying long? Rent an apartment.
Average cost of a very good street meal: $1
Average cost of a very good restaurant meal: $3
Cost of a 16-hour train ride with bed: $25
Cost of 1-hour air-conditioned taxi ride to/from the airport in Bangkok: $10
Cost of very basic beach hut accommodation on the west coast: $1. Prices literally go from $1-$300 (for 5-star hotel). It’s crazy.
Cost of the most delicious shake ever with fresh coconut, pineapple, and mango: $1
Cost of motorbike rental for 1 day: $5 Gas: $2
One-hour Thai Massage (better than any I have ever had in Canada): $10
I would say we spent around $15 (for 2 people) on food every day. We’re talking delicious pad thai, mango salad, and yellow curry.
We spent around $450 per month on guesthouses (for 2 people in Thailand). You’ll pay less for one person.
That’s $900 per month for two people living in beautiful Thailand, eating out three times per day. But we also spent thousands on scuba diving (Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia) and dished out $1000 for a four-day liveaboard trip throughout Komodo National Park in Indonesia.
We had the most incredible year I can imagine. We dived with whale sharks, thresher sharks, Octopus, manta rays, and schools of barracuda. We took care of and went swimming with elephants and lived on a sailboat while we navigated Komodo National Park in Indonesia. I can’t even describe how beautiful the stars are when you’re out at sea all night. We climbed numerous volcanoes and learned how to surf in Bali. We also spent a good amount of time in very expensive cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
Easy. First, in developing countries, you don’t need to book hotels, hostels, or guesthouses online. You can if you want, especially for the first couple of nights, but you’ll find better deals by asking other travellers and walking around to see the rooms.
Eat street food. Many restaurants in tourist areas cater to westerners. These restaurants charge more and run around $3-7 per meal depending on where you are. Street food is amazing and very cheap. We never got sick once.
Take local transport when possible. We paid $1 in the Philippines for a 4-hour bus ride complete with bad movies. Cambodian Tuk-Tuks can take you from point A to Point B for a dollar or two. In Myanmar, we rented rickshaws for $1 and had someone peddle us back to our hotel. Not only does this give money to such hard-working people but it’s also a great and unique way to see a place and spend less at the same time.
Couch-surfing: Couch-surfing has been such an amazing experience for us. We’ve surfed all over the U.S.A but in SE Asia, we only used it in Singapore, where the prices are similar to North America. We stayed with a really cool Russian guy. We also couch-surfed in Hong Kong, where housing is more expensive than San Francisco. When you’re going to an expensive area, try couch-surfing and find some cool people you can meet and crash with. Keep in mind though – Couch-surfing is not just about finding free accommodation. It’s about getting to know your host, making a friend in a new country and giving back to the community by hosting people at your own place as well.
Bargain: As much as I hate it sometimes, you pretty much have to bargain at least a little. You’d be surprised at what you can save off transportation, lodging, meals, and activities. When it comes to goods, I try not to bargain anymore unless they are visibly trying to rip me off. It amazes me how many people (including me in the past) would bargain a $3 item to $2 but not hesitate on buying a $5 latte in their home country. These people need it more than Starbucks!
Communicate: Tell people you’re on a budget. Talk with other travellers who are also on a budget. Share advice. This is where you’ll really find deals and “secrets”.
For long haul flights, use Frequent Flyer Miles. With Canadian Free Flyers, you’ll be able to earn enough points in as little as 6 months to go to Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa for less than $200 in most cases. Alternatively, you can use redtag.ca and skyscanner.com to see options for flights. Once in Asia, you can continue to use Skyscanner but make sure you always scout the deals on AirAsia as well. I once saw a flight from Penang, Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur for $1. $100 is the average for intra-Asia flights. Sweet right?
Be a local: Meeting locals is the best part about travel. They are so interesting and enhance the trip so much. They can also tell you where to get the best meals for cheap. They can share where to shop, how much the REAL price should be, and may even invite you to a wedding. We went to two of them while exploring Moni, Indonesia. One of our tricycle drivers in the Philippines invited us to his little home to have dinner with his family. Incredible experience.
This is really all it takes. It’s not hard. I’m amazed when people tell me they spent $12,000 on a 2-month adventure. Whaaaaaaaat! Wow. I didn’t even know it was possible. I would rather travel 10 months for the same price! Maybe that’s just me!
Sure, sometimes the transport is a little rough. And yes, sometimes the beds are a little hard. Sometimes the showers are cold.
But when it’s all said and done, none of this shit matters. In fact, without it, the stories would suck. Imagine listening to someone telling you how they simply spent their time eating western food with western people in a hotel secluded from the real world. Boring. Yawn. Sleep time.
So what are you waiting for? Your rent in Canada is probably more than our whole living expenses overseas. Plus, even if you’re not keen to travel solo, there’s lots of great adventure companies out there.
Go check out Skyscanner and make some plans. Or better yet, join Canadian Free Flyers and earn lots of travel points to get you there FAST and almost FREE!
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