How I Didn’t Do Thailand on $20 a Day

Well howdy there. A new week is upon us and today I had several ideas about a post I was going to do, and well my original idea morphed as I thought about it and now I’ve decided to talk about how I budgeted (poorly) my first time in Thailand back in 1999. In fact, it was the first country of a seven month trip, which was also my first ever solo trip. And I was going to 24 or something like that countries and I had never done backpacking before and so, for starters I didn’t know how much I would need to budget.

So where did I start? Well, I bought a bunch of guide books including the Lonely Planet to Thailand. I left Australia with so many heavy booked it was ridiculous. The ‘Let’s Go’ series was my Europe guide. My Lonely Planet for Egypt turned out to be useless. The others were better. Anyways, I had to go down the list and estimate how much per day I would need to spend. There was no doubt about it, I wanted to stay away for as long as I could so that meant I needed to travel as frugally as possible.

Spanish Steps

I looked at Europe and went with $50AUD a day. Staying in hostels, with a Eurail Pass not included in that $50 it was something that was just about doable when I had free accommodation through family friends in some places. In the UK it was not. And the worst was Iceland where my budget was basically irrelevant.

But for Asia I needed to be more frugal – and all I heard from people who had been to India and Thailand was how cheap they were. Somehow I arrived at my budget of $20AUD a day. It seems insane now, but that’s what it was. And I will say, in India I achieved it. In fact I had a bit in reserve. Unfortunately it was not enough to counter the fact that in Thailand I blew my budget big time there.

Which was a real worry because that was the first country, the first two weeks of my ‘Around the World’ Adventure. Too be so far over budget was a real stress actually. Thankfully things evened out over the next few countries.

So how ‘budget’ was Thailand?? Was $20AUD ever realistic?? We are talking about $14USD or so for reference. Where did the money go?

Well, for starters, the most expensive thing is accommodation generally when you travel. You generally can’t afford to spend 50% or more of your daily budget on accommodation, although that does depend on what county your in. If you’re budget is $1000 a day and you spend $500 a night on accommodation, firstly you will be staying somewhere awesome I would hope and secondly you still have $500 a day which anywhere in the world should be plenty. But it’s a different story when you only budget $20.

The exchange rate was roughly 20 – 22 baht to the Aussie dollar. So the daily budget translated into 420 baht or so. I remember arriving in Bangkok and sharing a taxi in with these two backpackers, and well I ended up at their hotel which was the very definition of ‘bare bones’ – a room with a bed and nothing else, shared facilities, 200 baht a night. So you know, that’s not expensive at all. Remember it is 1999, but $10AUD a night for accommodation (slightly less in fact) binds us to the 50% rule. But $10.50AUD a day for food and everything else??? This was in the Khao San Road district, my first introduction to one of the world’s great backpacker havens.

Beer was dirt cheap. Like less than a buck for one there. I remember I had quite a few on that first day, I remember I was pretty darn drunk at the end of it. Plus meals. Plus accommodation, and that taxi. Yep, I was already well over budget! And I was so naïve, I hadn’t planned anything for Thailand although I think I knew about Chiang Mai.

Old backpackers trick – overnight bus means you don’t have to pay for accommodation for a night. And that’s what everyone was doing, so by the end of day two, where I had spent money on a fake tuk tuk tour (it was 20 baht for a tour, I would know straight away these days or even a week later that it wasn’t a proper tour, but well, second day out of Australia I was a sucker), plus the bus ride I was way over budget again.

Chiang Mai gave me five days from memory. I think I paid 180 baht at the Evergreen Guesthouse. This time I had a much larger room with my own bathroom. I spent money on an elephant trek which was my major expense, as was meals and drinks. If you go out for a meal and have a couple of drinks, even in 1999 Thailand you are going to spend a minimum of $5AUD and that’s 25% of the budget gone, with two other meals, water, transport etc. You can see already that $20 a day was not feasible.

And then I really didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had a giant book with me about Thailand, but I didn’t have the experience in travel to know the value of planning. I mean, today I plan way too much! But in this case a little planning would have helped. In the end I decided my next destination would be Phuket. A freaking long way from Chiang Mai. There was only one option, to fly! I can’t remember the price of the ticket, at least $150AUD which works out to be more than an extra $10 a day.

I met some Canadian backpackers on route and shared a room with a random stranger there and I think it was 300 a night, 150 baht each. I remember a beehive attached to the hut we had. Basic room again. Didn’t matter. In fact – no hot showers anywhere I stayed in Thailand that time around. In all fairness, never needed them. Phuket was fun for a few days, before I had to make my way back to Bangkok by road.

This included some long bus rides, one possibly at night, with a stop in Chonburi where there is a temple on a hill populated by a hellova lot of monkeys. The accommodation and all costs here were much cheaper than elsewhere – it’s not a greatly visited place. I am sure it was less than 100 baht a night if not 50 baht a night.

The bus to Bangkok must have been the over night one. Back where I had started – Khao San Road, I found a much cheaper room for 90 Baht a night than the one I had when I first arrived. It was a large cupboard really up against a laneway and party goers until 5am made plenty of noise just outside the room. I did visit the Golden Temple when I was there this time, but otherwise the last few days I believe I had managed to keep it to $20 a day or less.

I looked at my finances, I had started to take careful note almost from day one on what I had spent money on. I was over $300AUD over budget for the first two weeks. I had spent more than double what I had planned. Half or more of that was the flight which was not something I had planned. But otherwise it was all day to day stuff.

Of course, when you budget you bring some extra. I had been told by my old boss to bring an extra 10%. Well, I had certainly eaten into that, but the trick was now to keep the budget under control. In India I would be very much under budget, and I was there for four weeks. Staying longer in a place makes budgeting easier. After two weeks I was $340 or so over budget, something like $24 over per day. By the end of India I had that down to being $250 or so over for six weeks, on average six dollars a day. Six dollars a day over budget? That sounds perfectly reasonable!

And I learnt what a decent budget for a place was. Last time I was in Thailand I only budgeted $40 a day in 2018. It was perfectly adequate! (although I prepaid the accommodation so it was in truth a fair bit more). The thing is, there were actually ways I could have spent less money in 1999. I could have not drunk beer. I had a couple of steaks, I could have skipped them. I could have saved a little on accommodation, stayed in dorms for example. But when it’s all new to you, I would say give yourself extra because you can read about it, talk to friends about it, but not until you are experiencing backpacking and budgeting your travel will you actually work out exactly how much you need. And you’ll work out what you need to spend it on too.

These first two weeks of backpacking were invaluable to me in so many ways. I will be honest and say I was not sure I was enjoying myself at times, I wasn’t sure of what I had gotten myself into with seven months of backpacking ahead, or if it was for me. But it’s 2022 now, 23 years on and travelling became my passion before those seven months were out. (I also swore after visiting India in 1999 ‘never again!’ and yet have now been four times). The best thing was jumping into it. I know now how to do it in a way that makes me happy, and I get out of it what I want to. Because that’s different for everyone, and it’s changed an awful lot for me over time too!

Thanks for popping by – any thoughts please do comment! May the Journey Never End!


8 thoughts on “How I Didn’t Do Thailand on $20 a Day

    1. depends on how much money you have access too and what you want to get out of it. Today I travel a LOT differently. But it also helped me understand the value of money. I have met a lot of people who have travelled a lot more frugally than I did!

  1. I think it’s a pity to devote too much energy to the budget issue. A passion takes what it takes, even if it means travelling less if my budget doesn’t allow for more.

    1. yes but this was my first international trip solo. I was discovering my passion, it hadn’t become a passion yet. I might have packed it in after two weeks and decided it wasnt for me. obviously that’s not what happened. plus i was a pizza delivery driver back then with limited hours. I saved every cent I could. I hoped to stay away for as long as possible. And despite budget restrictions, I had the time of my life and loved every second of it! Thanks for reading Lookom!

  2. This is eerily timely, just last night (August 2nd) we were watching an episode of ItteQ (Japanese travel program) where 2 of the members went to Thailand on the cheap. For example, ate dinner for 90 yen, stayed in a (woeful) hostel for 1500 yen. But of course they had a whole team that researched their trip for them! Great insight as always Andy, thanks for sharing.

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