Echoserang Travel Guide: How to Travel in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam for 26 Days with PHP 33,000 or Less

Disclaimer: Your total expenses may vary depending on a lot of factors like the current exchange rates, the season when you intend to travel, your own itinerary, and your stomach (bakit, feeling mo makaka-survive ka ng isang buwan ng hindi kumakain? Puwes, feeling mo lang ‘yun; feelingera ka masyado). Hopefully, however, this blog post will give you a rough idea how much money you should save, and help you plan and prepare for a 26-day trip in Southeast Asia. Take note as well that we did this trip back in the summer of 2015 so transportation, accommodation and admission prices may vary at present time.

When The Actress and I went on a four-week Southeast Asian trip last year I was constantly barraged by friends and acquaintances on my personal social media accounts, asking me either or both of two questions: first, if I am still working, and second, how can they do the same thing and travel for almost a month without holding up a bank at gun point.
Well, if you’re curious to know, yes, I am still working. Though travel is not that expensive compared to how it used to be, let’s be honest, you still need money to make it happen. And the concept is this simple: no savings, no money, therefore, no traveling. So it all boils down to how driven and disciplined you truly are to set aside cash regularly so you can inch your way closer to making that dream trip a reality. Another thing you should know is that it takes patience, a certain degree of planning and sometimes, several months of preparations to be able to go on trips like this one with little or no shits happening (sige, i-try mong mag-travel for 4 weeks at bente-kwatro oras ka lang magpe-prepare; tumitira ka nanaman ng katol).

This trip, however, is the exception to the rule because The Actress and I only prepared for this Southeast Asian jaunt for 2 weeks. Nyahaha! Well, it was a spur of the moment thing. If you ask me PHP 33,000 per person is already quite expensive in my book, but when we shared our expense report to some of the people we know, they were amazed at how we were able to stretch that amount of money for 26 days in 7 cities and 4 countries. I guess a lot of people still have this notion that travel is very, very (did I say very?) expensive. That’s why I’m putting out this travel guide to blast your misconception that you need to join and win a reality TV show or marry a perverted rich old man with questionable fetishes just so you can go on an epic adventure. Yes, you can travel outside of the country without humiliating yourself in front of national television and yes, you can fulfill your traveling dreams without giving up your Bataan (may mga bagay talaga na hindi na dapat tina-translate in English).
Anyway, let’s begin!
Booking your plane tickets
Ideally you should have already bought your plane tickets months in advance, preferably when there was a seat sale. This way your roundtrip tickets won’t cost you more than PHP 4,000. However, for this trip, because The Actress and I only booked our flights 2 weeks before we flew out of the Philippines, the price was understandably steep at PHP 5,120 per person.

Our original plan was Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand-Malaysia, but when we checked out the ticket prices for that one it was more than PHP 10,000 per person. Ouch. We decided instead to reverse our route and start in Malaysia then head back home from Vietnam, and that arrangement thankfully came with discounted airfare, which was half of what we would be shelling out had we insisted on our initial plan. It’s always a good idea to be flexible when traveling, both before and during the actual trip.

No earth-shattering and mind-blowing how-to guides here when it comes to booking flights. My only reminder for you is to be patient and to persevere. Almost everyone waits for seat sales these days so the antiquated travel tip of booking your flights on midnights when people are supposedly already in a comatose is now pretty much useless. Many people nowadays are willing to stay up late just to score those low airfares. You have to persist and you will have to bear with websites that seem to load forever, booking systems that suddenly crash at the most inconvenient time and seats that sell out before you can even scream the word, “uncle.” Always remember that the one who persists is the one who gets his plane ticket cheap.
Setting up your itinerary
Every time I travel and my friends ask me for my itinerary I am always hesitant to just hand it to them because that’s precisely it―MY itinerary. My itineraries are constructed to fit my personality, my travel style, the attractions and establishments that I find interesting, and the activities and food that I enjoy. All of those things will definitely be different for other people.
You’re free to follow it by the dot, you can use it as a basis for making your own, or you can even tweak certain parts of it or totally overhaul it to fit your travel plans better.

Our itinerary for this trip spanned for a total of 26 days―3 days in Kuala Lumpur, 4 days in Melaka, 4 days in Penang, a day for traveling overland from Malaysia to Thailand, 4 days in Bangkok, 6 days in Siem Reap, a day in Phnom Penh to rest before we cross over to Vietnam, and 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City. It was pretty hectic compared to the last time I went on a solo 28-day trip wherein I took it slow and stayed in each destination for one week. It was The Actress’ first out-of-the-country trip so we had to make the most of the time we were traveling in the Indochina Region, hence the jam-packed itinerary. Also, because my companion was working with a very tight budget, we had to forego tourist spots with expensive admission fees and most of the activities we did were close to free. They were still a lot of fun, though.
Preparing an itinerary for two people is even trickier because you need to take into account their preferences and their different tastes for certain things, and that’s exactly one of the hardest things The Actress and I had to do during the planning phase of this trip. For example, The Actress is fond of walking long distances (there was this one time she said she was just going to roam around Melaka’s Old Quarter and she ended up in Melaka Sentral… by foot!) while I am a lazy walker most of the time (it comes with old age, I guess). I am fond of trying out different foreign cuisine almost every hour while The Actress is just content with eating three big meals a day. We really had to adjust to one another and we also had to fiddle with our itinerary to equally accommodate what we both wanted to do while we were on the road.

If you’re traveling with a companion, whether it’s a sibling, a friend or a significant other, both of you will definitely have to make a few compromises. There are tourist spots, activities and experiences that the two of you will have to pass up for the mean time, and there are things that you might possibly dislike but you will still need to do anyway. Compromise is a reality of traveling with another person. This is exactly the reason why they say that travel is the ultimate relationship test.  Compromising is really frustrating especially during the trip, but once it’s over and you look back at it you’ll just say to yourself that it was one of the best adventures you did in your life. That’s certainly how The Actress and I look at it now, which is a stark contrast when we were traveling and both of us were on the verge of tossing each other to the Mekong River.
Choosing and booking your accommodations
Aside from the transportation costs, a big chunk of your budget will definitely go to accommodations. To stay within our budget and save on lodging, The Actress and I chose to stay at hostels for majority of our trip. PHP 2,000 to PHP 3,000 can already get you a decent and comfy dorm where you can stay for 3 to 5 days, with all the necessary shared amenities and facilities like clean toilets and bathrooms (sometimes even with towels, soaps and shampoos), laundry, AC, hairdryers and even internet connection that is not frustratingly Third World. *Ahem* Philippines *Ahem* And depending on the hostel, that price range may also come with basic breakfast like toast and jam, unlimited coffee or tea and even fruits if you’re lucky, and that can also help in keeping your food expenses down.

However, staying in dorms has the drawback of sharing the room with people you do not know; complete strangers who came from different parts of the world and have cultures, languages, perceptions, habits and idiosyncrasies that are so far off from what you are used to. You really have to brush up on your communication, social and charade skills but it is such a great learning experience to interact with people from other countries, I’m telling you. Insensitive, noisy, annoying, messy and stupid dorm mates are also common so don’t forget to bring patience and self-restraint with you when staying in these types of accommodation, unless you want to be detained overseas for attacking and strangling a fellow tourist (I actually almost did this in one of my previous trips because of an excessively racist dorm mate nyahaha!). Bringing ear plugs is one of the smartest things you can do, too. If all else fails, don’t forget to bring at least 10 banigs of Dulcolax. If a fellow guest offends you by incessantly making fun of your skin color, drop at least 5 pieces of Dulcolax on her coffee or tea the next morning (true story).

I personally use Hostelworld or Booking.com (mga baks, hindi ito ang dating website na gagamitin niyo para makapag “booking” kayo; nililinaw ko lang) because these websites are very user friendly and they make it simple to make reservations and down payments. Hostelworld in particular has an extensive listing of accommodations. It also conveniently lists all the amenities and facilities available at a particular hostel, maps and directions are included as well, and the platform even allows guests to leave real-time feedback a few hours after they have checked out. I find the reviews section extremely useful because it makes the decision-making process easier and it allows me to see immediately if a particular accommodation is a good fit for me or not. Of course, you are free to inquire and book directly with your preferred hostel, but based on experience most of them set aside a lot of their rooms for guests who will make reservations using these websites. The price difference is not that huge anyway, and these platforms sometimes even give you discounts and promos.

When choosing your accommodations, make sure first and foremost that it is clean and safe. There is no point in saving money if you have to endure a dirty and disorganized living space and you cannot sleep because you’re worried you might get murdered while you count kalachuchis in dreamland. Second thing you need to take into account is the location. It’s useless to stay in a budget hostel when it will take you almost an hour and it will cost you hundreds of pesos before you get to the nearest bus stop or eatery because it’s situated so far from civilization. (Pumili ka naman ng accommodation na ilang tambling lang ang layo sa mga importanteng landmarks at establishments, di ba?) Lastly, make sure that the hostel doesn’t have bed bugs. Yuck. This is where reviews from Hostelworld and other travel websites come in handy. When I see any recent review that a hostel has bed bugs or they might have bed bugs, I automatically take it off from my “to-consider” list. Long-term traveling is stressful enough as it is without parasitic companions.

The Actress and I spent almost PHP 7,500 per person on accommodations for this month-long trip. Pretty cheap, right? I frankly don’t get why some people spend too much money on accommodations when traveling. Unless your main goal is to have a staycation, it’s pointless to pay for a posh hotel room that’s worth PHP 5,000 to PHP 10,000 a night when you’ll just be out exploring the city the whole day and evening. As long as the place is clean, secured, has basic living amenities, and as long as the beds won’t play hell on your spinal cord during the night, that’s all you really need when you’re doing long-term, budget traveling.
Raising money and budgeting your travel fund
Money matters when it comes to travel. Like I said, it’s not excessively expensive anymore to travel these days, but you still need money to make it happen. The most obvious way to raise money before your trip is to set aside cash regularly. However, this advice is only applicable if your travel dates are already scheduled a few months or a year in advance. I don’t think you’d be able to come up with a substantial amount of money by saving up when you’re about to fly out of the country in a week or two. This is the reason why I highly suggest that you open an additional bank account. This way you can separate your travel fund and have cash readily available for spur-of-the-moment trips, and you won’t be tempted to use the money on useless infomercial merchandise like products claiming they can make you taller when in fact your goddamn epiphyseal plates have already been closed for more than a decade now. I’m sorry, but it’s time to accept defeat. You’re a hobbit so get the bloody hell over it.

You can also beef up your travel fund by using some of the skills you’re good at and offering freelance, part-time services. Write web content, do graphic designing, plan and organize a wedding, or bake cookies and sell them to your friends. I’m sure you have other profitable skills other than the ones you use at the office. It’s high time to get them out of your baul and use them to make extra cash for your next adventure. But hold it right there! Stop unbuttoning that shirt. I am in no way encouraging you to apply as a male stripper. Unless, of course, you have a handsome face, a chiseled body and pandesal abs wherein a jar of Nutella can be smothered generously, then by all means take off those clothes in front of me. If not… I’m sure we can find other things you can do that do not involve throwing your underwear on someone’s face.

While planning for your trip, it would be wise to list down all your anticipated expenses―from airfare to bus rides, from food to attraction fees, from toiletries to souvenirs; list them all down to the littlest expense and add them up. Toss in a buffer of PHP 3,000 to PHP 5,000 with your total and that’s the safe budget goal you need to achieve before hauling your ass to the airport to start your trip. It would be nice to have a buffer of at least PHP 15,000 on top of your anticipated expenses, but let us not veer away very far from reality. After all, this is traveling we are talking about and not your handsome and highly unattainable officemate who is probably already taken anyway. Here’s a gallon of brewed kapeng barako. Drink it.

The best way to ensure that you stick within your budget once you’re already on the road is to keep track of your expenses. You can do it the old school way by bringing a small notebook and listing down all your daily expenses or you can download an expense tracker app on your smart phone. Whichever method you choose will be fine. The important thing is to keep track of your daily expenses to help you monitor if you’re going overboard and to make sure that you have enough cash so you can come back to the Philippines on time. Tracking your expenses also helps you check if you’re becoming an excessively stingy bitch. It’s okay to eat every now and then, you know? Unless, of course, your goal is to become a human-sized toothpick. And if you have hopes of snatching a foreigner boyfriend while you are traveling (hashtag: #ProjectEsposo), you need to eat. Unless the guy has a fixation for protruding ribs, a skeleton is only attractive during the Halloweens.
Cost Breakdown
So here’s a summary of our expense report to give you a better idea how much money you will be spending if you ever decide to do a trip like this one:

Expenses Per Person
*
Roundtrip Cebu Pac Airfare (MNL-KL, HCM-MNL) 5120
Travel Insurance from Pacific Cross Philippines 1162 1
Philippine Travel Tax 1620 2
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur
Suzie’s Guesthouse (3 Nights, Mixed Dorm) 924 3
Food and Water 888.44
Transportation, including bus transfer to Melaka 429.60
Malaysia: Melaka
Riverview Guesthouse (4 Nights, Mixed Dorm) 930
Food, Water and Groceries 737.60
Transportation, including bus transfer to Penang 622.80
Miscellaneous (Souvenirs, Laundry) 210
Malaysia: Penang
80’s Guesthouse (4 Nights, Mixed Dorm) 1260
Food and Water 998.20
Transportation, including sleeper train to Bangkok 1311.60 4
Miscellaneous (Laundry, Attraction Fees) 351.60
Thailand: Bangkok
Everyday Bangkok Hostel (4 Nights, Mixed Dorm 1601
Food and Water 998.20
Transportation, including direct bus to Siem Reap 1514.80
Miscellaneous (Entrance Fees, Laundry, Souvenir) 406
Cambodia: Siem Reap
Siem Reap Holiday Garden (6 Nights, Twin Private Room) 2025
Transportation, including bus transfer to Phnom Penh 450
Food, Water and Groceries 2435 5
Miscellaneous (Laundry, Admission Fee, Tuktuk & Bike Rentals) 3240 6
Cambodia: Phnom Penh
Dolphin Hostel (1 Night, Mixed Dorm) 191.25
Food and Water 213.75
Transportation, including bus transfer to Ho Chi Minh City 967.50 7
Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City
Eco Backpacker’s Hostel (3 Nights, Mixed Dorm) 559
Food and Water 560.20
Transportation 800
Souvenirs 500 8
GRAND TOTAL PHP32,997.94

1 Our total expense per person wouldn’t have gone over PHP 32,000 if not for the travel insurance, but it’s something anyone who is planning to do long-term traveling should get, especially for a trip like this that spans several cities and countries and involves a lot of moving around.
2 I know; you’re wondering where the hell this travel tax is going to. Me, too.
3 We were supposed to stay in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Suzie’s Guesthouse, but the staff upgraded us to a private room for free (thank you!). Most of the hostels we stayed in came with free breakfast except for the ones in Melaka, Bangkok and Siem Reap.
4 My ticket for the sleeper train cost less than The Actress’ because I took the upper bunk. Yeah, there’s a price difference between the two bunks. I guess it’s because the lower bunk is more spacious and you have the window all to yourself throughout the night.
5 Admittedly, food and grocery items in Cambodia are more expensive because you pay in US dollars. Also, my overall food expense for this trip would not have ballooned so much if I had a firmer grip with my diet, but where’s the fun in that? Anyway, I’m not the type who thinks twice about spending money on food, especially if it’s good.
6 The admission fee for the Angkor Archaeological Park and the tuktuk rental were understandably expensive because we explored the temples for three days. You can choose to limit your visit to just one day to lower your expenses, but that is something I would not suggest that you do. Trust me, by afternoon every temple will look the same to you and you won’t appreciate them fully.
7 You don’t need to make a stopover anymore to cross the Mekong River by boat when traveling overland from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, thanks to the newly built Tsubasa Bridge. We actually crossed this bridge on the day they inaugurated it and there were a lot of people taking pictures.
8 I didn’t buy a lot of souvenirs because I’m not really a souvenirs kind of guy; I prefer taking photos. Anyway, most of the pieces I like have already been bought in my previous trips. The Actress, however, was a different story. She spent a lot for souvenirs, which was understandable considering this was her first trip out of the country.
What to bring
Another thing that concerns people when preparing for a long-term trip is the contents of their bags. What are the things you need to bring for your trip? But before that, first things first: let’s talk about the kind of luggage you’ll be bringing. Is it going to be a suitcase or a backpack? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Personally, I prefer backpacks because of their mobility and because I’m a badass when it comes to packing my belongings (I can pack stuff good for a month that will only weigh five kilos, laptop and DSLR included nyahaha!); although backpacks may not be a good option for people with spinal cord problems. Suitcases are usually more spacious and you can just conveniently wheel your stuff to wherever it is you want to go, with no risk whatsoever of developing scoliosis, lordosis or kyphosis, but they can be a huge inconvenience especially if your chosen destination’s terrain (e.g. unpaved, muddy roads) is not conducive for such luggage. It’s really a matter of preference, and if you can stick with it and bring it along with you until the end of your trip. (Basta kaya mong panindigang dalhin ‘yan ng apat na linggo, ‘yun lang naman ang mahalaga.) If you’re thinking of making traveling a more regular thing, it’s wise to invest in a good quality luggage right about now. It doesn’t have to be a tremendously expensive brand. You’d be surprised that lesser known brands’ quality is just as good as their popular counterparts. Case in point: My luggage, which is a 40-liter Camel Mountain backpack, only cost me around PHP 2,000 at the time when I bought it and after 6 years of regular traveling in and out of the country with it, it’s still more durable than my friggin’ knee joints.

Contrary to what most people think, you do not need to haul your entire wardrobe when going on a month-long trip. 8 to 10 tops, 4 bottoms and a pair of jeans, and 7 pieces of undergarments are all you need, trust me. You will obviously need to do your laundry at least once a week. You can wear your shorts and your pants more than once before throwing them inside the washing machine so there’s no point in bringing too many bottoms. I personally use and bring clothing items from Uniqlo whenever I travel mainly because they fit perfectly with my excessively lean frame, plus they don’t weigh much inside my backpack and they dry easily after washing. Bring microfiber towels because they also dry up pretty fast. Don’t go overboard when it comes to toiletries. Anything you might have missed, you can just buy it at a local supermarket or convenience store. And if you’re traveling in the Indochina Region during the summer do not forget to bring wet wipes. They’re lifesavers.

Now, when it comes to gadgets, your smartphone and your camera are enough. I brought my Asus netbook because my work had an online-based arrangement while I was traveling (and yes, my smartphone is Asus, too―a Zenfone 5 to be exact). You can skip bringing a laptop, but if you really prefer the safety and convenience of having your own computer while you’re on the road, I highly suggest that you bring a lightweight netbook.
Other things you need
Before embarking on your Southeast Asian adventure, pay a visit first to your bank. Make sure you can access your account in case you lose money while you’re on the road. Your bank will usually ask you which countries you are going to so they can activate your ATM card and you’d be able to use it with their partner bank/s abroad. You can also give them instructions to limit how much money can be withdrawn from your account and when overseas access to your account should be disabled.
Get travel insurance as well before you go out of the country. If you already have your own life insurance policy, I applaud and congratulate you for being a responsible and smart adult. *Clap, Clap Clap!* If you still don’t have one, get life insurance first before you fulfill your dream (or delusion, whichever is appropriate to your situation) of traveling around and out of the country. For reals.

I’d still suggest that you get a separate travel insurance policy just for your trip because it covers situations that life insurances don’t such as lost luggage, cancelled flights, and emergency evacuations. You think you don’t need travel insurance, but trust me, you’ll think otherwise once your arms and legs are immobile and in a cast, and you’re confined in a medical facility where the staff does not speak any English and you need to be transferred back to the Philippines. If you don’t want the hassle of contacting an agent, head on over to Pacific Cross Philippines’ (Formerly Blue Cross Philippines) website and buy a policy there directly. The website will redirect you to a page where you can enter your personal and travel information, and make a payment securely. Immediately after you finish doing all of that the policy will be sent to your e-mail address. I actually used this service for this trip and it was the very definition of hassle-free.
Always remember that a good traveler is a responsible traveler. And you become one by being accountable first with yourself and with your own well-being and safety.

Make a copy of your itinerary and the accommodations where you will be staying together with their respective contact information, and give it to your parents, your partner, a sibling, or to a trusted friend. This way they know who to contact in case something happens to you and they don’t hear from you while you are out of the country. Make photocopies as well of your documents like your plane tickets, booking confirmations and your travel insurance. Scan your passport and identification cards, print a physical copy and send a copy as well to your e-mail or to a file hosting platform you won’t have problems accessing overseas.
Solo or Duo?
I’m pretty certain that traveling and compromising with another person is not an appealing idea for everyone, so some of you will probably ask if you can travel alone. The simple answer to that is yes, you definitely can but you should consider this, too: you will be alone. I know; it’s one the greatest situations to be in because you have complete freedom and you control everything. Nobody will dictate how much time you should spend on a certain tourist attraction, nobody will force you when, what and where you should eat, nobody will care if you go back to your room drunk at three in the morning, and nobody will talk you out of buying that eyesore that shady lady is trying to call a t-shirt. You are also not accountable for a travel companion. However, you should remember as well that if something shitty happens to you like spraining your ankle, falling down the 272 steps of the Batu Caves and breaking your bones, or being hit by a double deck tourist bus that is running at 20 miles per hour (seriously?!), you’re on your own. Nobody will be there to share your misery and comfort you, help you, and bring you to the nearest morgue… I meant hospital. You have sole responsibility for yourself. Furthermore, it can be impractical because you will have to bear the brunt of the expenses alone and no one will be there to split the costs with you.

In spite of the apparent disadvantages of traveling by yourself, I still believe it’s one of those trips you need to do at least once in your life. Solo traveling teaches you to be independent, assertive, handle your finances, it teaches you to communicate and socialize with different kinds of people, and it makes you realize that you are actually capable of a lot of things if only you remove the limitations you have put on yourself.

So, should you go solo or duo? Again, that’s up to you. Nyahaha! If you’re brave enough (more like, crazy enough) to go on your own and your finances can take the blow, I say do it. If you think you are not yet prepared mentally, emotionally and financially, then tag a trusted friend along. There is no real correct way of traveling, so might as well travel the way you want to and the way that is most comfortable for you.