Backpacking Southeast Asia was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I started in Hanoi, worked my way through half a dozen countries, and got to experience more cultural quirks than I’d ever conceived of.
This article isn’t about me though, it’s about you. It’s a chance for me to take my experience and share it with you. That way, when you’re trying to decide whether to travel to to south Thailand, or visit the stunning beaches of Bali, you’ll know what the best fit is. At just five months in six countries I’m not an expert. However, even in such a short amount of time you can find out all sort of interesting facts.
Food prices, food quality, scooter rental, hostel prices, gas prices, corruption levels, quality of beaches, attitude of the people, and so much more. Even though Bali was the last country on my Asian tour, I’ll make it the first one to receive some love
First off, this island is huge! I thought Koh Samui was big, but me and my girlfriend drove through around it in only three hours. Bali is more like a 12 hour trip. The advantage of the size is the sheer diversity of the place. In the course of three days I got to visit the base of a large volcano (Mt. Batur), a tourist beach with a life changing sunrise, and a stunning beach, more than a mile long, with only six people on it. I couldn’t have been living better if I had $10,000,000 (the above picture is from the beach I’m speaking of).
Now for the bad. The traffic on Bali is worse than those people who dose themselves with Axe spray in the locker room. If you’re on a scooter (and brave) you can jump around the traffic. If you’re in a taxi, get ready to wait. That being said, all of the roads I encountered were in great condition and you can easily take a scooter almost anywhere. I rented a dirt bike from Bali Bike Rental (they have scooters too) and I highly recommend them.
I stayed at a hostel in Seminyak called Capsule Hostel. Loved it. The location isn’t fantastic, but with comfortable beds and air conditioning, sleeping is a breeze.
Cost of living in Bali: 6/10
I didn’t appreciate Hanoi as I should have because it was the first place I went in SEA. Now, after twenty or thirty other cities, I have a totally renewed appreciation for Hanoi. You can get a cheap hostel downtown, everything is walking distance, the people are nice, the beer is cheap, as is the food. You can get a scooter taxi to almost anywhere in the city for $3.
Downside, people consistently hawk you for stuff. Restaurants, stalls, tourist crap. It really starts to get old to have everybody yelling at you as you walk past. The solution is to wear headphones. Of all cities in the SEA, this would be one of my favorites to visit again.
Cost of living in Hanoi 4 /10
Nestled up in the mountains, three hours from Chiang Mai, is Pai. This place is paradise! What sets it apart from other cities is that it’s been developed naturally. No ostentatious high rises or condos, none of that shit. Just lots of bungalows, cute restaurants, and mountain views everywhere. You’ll probably want to rent a scooter to get around, but at $2.50 a day you can’t go wrong. Hostel recommendations include Darling, Circus, and The Purple Monkey.
Trying to think about the bad is difficult. I suppose the terrible crowded downtown main street is definitely a minus. Also, it can get chilly at night. So if you’re only packed for tropical weather, you might want to buy a hoodie and some jeans. Another downside is the bus ride to Pai. You’ll take a about a three hour bus around hairpin turns where the driver’s sworn duty is to kill you. Someone people rent scooters and drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. Even as an experienced driver, I would never do this.
If I had more blog readers I wouldn’t even bring up Koh Rong. This is a small island just off the mainland of Cambodia. It’s heaven. Perks includes no police, no roads, no cars, no scooters, crystal clear beaches, cheap hostels, cheap food, and loads of other crazy cunts who like to drink and play beach volleyball just as much as you do.
Downside, internet can be spotty. All of the affordable hostels don’t have AC, and a mosquito net is a must. That being said, you can read about my experiences drinking Jameson on Koh Rong, and I would instantly trade all inconveniences to go back. If I ever decide that the world is too much, and I want to cop out by drinking myself to death Hunter Thompson style, Koh Rong is where I’ll do it.
Cost of Living 4/10
Loved this place. Some of the best beaches and atmosphere. Also, it’s really easy to explore the island on scooter. The roads are all well paved and you can go to the end of the island in less than two hours. Keeping in mind that there are two sides of the island, and you’ll have to decide which side to go up (I vote west side, it’s like driving through a paved jungle. Pro tip here, stay at Sanctuary hostel. It’s right on the beach, the bungalows are great, you have a beautiful private bathroom. The food they cook may be overpriced for Thailand, but it’s delicious. Also, three minutes from a 7/11. Convenience is a law of life.
If you’re into drinking, you’re in luck. There are more bars on the beach than there are cartons of Ben and Jerry’s in a fat ladies freezer. If you want to get to a club farther down the island , Tuk Tuks rarely charge more than $5.
Cost of Living 6/10
I know, a city with the same name as the country. What kind of anarchy is this? A well maintained anarchy. Singapore is a first world country and may pale to London and New York, but it’s still an important financial powerhouse. Everything is modern, with chewing gum being illegal the sidewalks are so clean.
Rumors abound that Singapore is too expensive to have a good time. Yes and no. Look, you can find an awesome hostel like the one I stayed at (Happy Snail Hostel) for about $12 night. From there, a subway ticket is just $1.50 or so one way. Sure, some food costs more than the GDP of Nigeria, but you can also go get chicken and rice for $3. I honestly believe that Singapore is as cheap or as expensive as you make it.
Cost of Living 8/10
If you’re going to explore southeast Asia, you have to hit Mui Ne. In particular, stay at Mui Ne Hills Budget Hostel (which I assure you is anything but a budget place.) They’ve got a great pool, then another. Then there happens to be another one, and if you get curious, you’ll find the fourth one. Three of the four pools have a fantastic view straight to the ocean. You can order two beers and a delicious dinner for less than $5. You can drink in the pool. Everyday there is a volleyball tournament at four.
I met Joanna here, which turned out to be a defining experience in my travels through Southeast Asia. I simply cannot recommend this hostel enough. Or the whole town for that matter. There are dozens of bars directly located on the ocean. You can sit in a chair, sip your Tiger, and hawk a loogie into the South China Sea. In America this privilege would cost $20 a beer. In Vietnam, about $1.50.
Price 4 /10
The Sun, the Sea, The Cheap Beer
After backpacking Asia for five months, I have so much more to say than what I just mentioned. Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Phuket, Koh Samui, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Nha Trang, Dalat, Saigon, and so on. I just mentioned the places that I enjoyed the most. If you’d like to learn about more SEA, leave me a comment or hit me with a short message.