Thailand. Home of ancient temples, stunning beaches, and five-star luxury unknown to any of its neighbors. The Kingdom of Thailand, once known as Siam, has long been a favorite of travelers, and for good reason. With incredible eating options, immense geographical variety, and postcard quality natural beauty, it's consistently sat in the world's top ten travel destinations for many years.
But despite its reputation as one of the world's best 'bang for your buck' travel destinations, visiting Thailand isn't always a cheap experience. The country's official Tourism department, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, estimates that the average tourist spends around 3,500 baht ($110 USD) per day while vacationing in the kingdom. That's not expensive per se, but it's certainly not in line with the dirt cheap image many would-be visitors have in mind when planning their Thailand vacations.
When it comes to value for money, few countries can match Thailand. Photo by Peter Hellberg
We're going to set an ambitious goal for wannabe Thailand travelers and cut that official budget not in half, but down to less than a third of the official average. Better yet, we're going to cut it down to size while keeping a reasonable level of luxury and comfort. There aren't going to be five-star hotel rooms, but there will be big beds, clean sheets, good food, amazing beaches, and great memories.
But first, let's get down to the raw data. With a monthly budget of $1,000 USD, the average daily budget for our month long Thailand vacation is $33. For most people, this isn't a great amount of money. For some, it's less than what's spent daily on their rent alone. But in a developing country with a huge amount of locally-produced goods and services, the numbers alone don't matter.
How to use this guide:
This guide is intended for both would-be budget travelers and people seeking a reference for their journey through Thailand. In this respect, it's both broad and direct, offering general rules for hotel rooms, food, and other services, as well as specific recommendations for certain areas. Use it as an encyclopedia or an overview, whichever suits you best on your vacation.
It's also divided into sections based on the needs of travelers and the location they happen to be in. Because of this, finding specific information for your destination – be it Bangkok, Koh Samui, or anywhere else in the Kingdom – is simple. Just skip to the section that's most relevant to you and you'll find low-cost recommendations for the most popular parts of the country.
Part 1: Finding comfortable rooms for under $15 a day
When most people think of high-end accommodation, they think of glitzy hotels, hundred foot swimming pools, and luxurious health spas. Amazingly, all of these are available to the budget traveler in Thailand, albeit with slightly different presentation. In order to keep your expenses low, it's important to completely separate your pampering from your accommodation.
Why? Because accommodation in Thailand can be divided into three distinct categories, at least for the temporary visitor. The first is hotels, which are identical to their counterparts found in Western countries. Organized, well promoted, and easily accessible, they tend to be on the expensive end of the price scale, while offering a reasonable degree of luxury and comfort.
In major tourist spots like Krabi, it's best to move a few blocks from the beach for cheap accommodation.
The second category is hostels, known around the world to backpackers as the cheapest place to stay in almost any country. While there are hostels in Thailand, they're few and far between, and tend to be used only by younger travelers. They're also uncomfortable, lacking in privacy, and an annoyingly familiar experience for those that want to experience real culture on their vacation.
The third option, and the one that we'll be exploring, is the Thai guesthouse. Practically unknown outside of Southeast Asia, guesthouses are small hotels that are typically operated by a family. The rooms are private and generally spacious. The beds are big and comfortable, the bathrooms clean, and the service significantly better than you'd find at a large chain hotel or youth hostel.
As their name would suggest, guesthouses feel much like a spare room in a family home. Found in every major destination in Thailand, they're the perfect source of accommodation for travelers that are conscious of their budget, yet need more luxury than the average backpacker. Most guesthouses cost between 300 and 500 baht ($10-16 USD) per night, depending on their location.
In Bangkok, the best places to find these guesthouses are small backstreets close to major urban areas. The substreets (Thai: soi) of Silom Road, Bangkok's primary financial district, are home to hundreds of small inns and guesthouses priced at less than 600THB per night. Cheaper housing is found in the Phayathai area, home of Bangkok's administrative buildings and clothing markets.
For the cheapest in Bangkok accommodation, it might be best to look at low-cost guesthouses in the Banglamphu area. Home to the well-known traveler ghetto Khao San Road, this part of town lacks the cleanliness and convenience of other parts of Bangkok, being a lengthy taxi ride away from the central city. Despite this, it's home to some of the city's cheapest rooms, some priced at less than $10 per night.
In other destinations, particularly the islands and beachside resort towns, the best accommodation is generally found a couple of blocks from the beach. Instead of looking at beachside hotels, walk five minutes up the street and enjoy bigger rooms, better food, and less noise for a fraction of the price. In major resorts like Phuket, expect to pay 400-600 baht ($12-18 USD) per night for a comfortable room. The further off the beaten path you go, the lower prices get, with rates for beachside rooms on islands like Koh Chang and Koh Lanta frequently falling as low as 250 baht ($8 USD) nightly.
Koh Samui/Ko Tao Recommendations:
- Rawai Beach – a smaller, more local beach with fewer resorts and more guesthouses.
- Phuket Town – the local city with lots of low-cost rooms available.
Chiang Mai Recommendations:
- Ko Samui – avoid Chaweng and Bo Phut beaches. Instead, stay at another beach and use a motorcycle or bicycle to explore the island.
- Ko Tao – Sairee Beach Rd for low-cost, simple accommodation near the beach.
- Old City – Ask for a taxi to 'Arak Rd' for cheap, comfortable apartments with weekly and monthly rates. Mostly used by vacationing Thais.
- Pai – In the low season, many resorts located slightly out of the town will reduce their prices by up to 75 percent.
Unfortunately, most guesthouses are difficult to book online, with few having email addresses and even fewer having an entire website. However, they're easy to track down once you've arrived – just ask a taxi driver or motorcycle guide to take you around the guesthouses in any particular area. For a couple hundred baht, you'll find a place to stay within an hour of arriving.
Part 2: Eating like a King (or Queen) for under $10 a day
Spend ten minutes in any Thai city and you'll notice something rather odd to Western eyes – Thais spend every minute of the day, whether working hard or relaxing, with food either by their side or in their hand. Despite this, the country has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world, with just a tiny fraction of the population overweight or obese.
Spend ten more minutes in any Thai city and you'll discover the reason for this national gastronomic obsession. Thai food is everywhere, and it's cheap. For as little as 30THB ($1 USD), you can buy an entire plate of delicious fried rice, fried thai noodles, grilled chicken, roasted duck, or hundreds of other Thai dishes and keep yourself filled to the brim with healthy food every hour of the day.
Thai street food is delicious, readily available, and inexpensive.
Here's how. Start by forcing yourself to never eat inside a shopping mall in Thailand. Bangkok is a shopper's paradise, but the mall restaurants tend to be the same overpriced, unhealthy chains that are found in every other country. McDonalds, Subway, and Pizza Hut litter the capital's shopping malls, distracting visitors from Thailand's greatest offering: its cheap, delicious, healthy street food.
There's a saying amongst Thais that the best food is found in the worst places. Instead of opting for the mall's food court, walk into one of the thousands of tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Bangkok and look through the menu. You'll find delicious Thai dishes for less than $2 USD a plate, complete with a drink of water or Thai tea.
Cheaper still are the roadside vendors, affectionately known as 'street food' by Thais. Hated by the Bangkok Municipal Association for blocking sidewalks, they're loved by residents for offering great meals at rock bottom prices. A plate of fried rice with a choice of various meats or vegetables comes in at under $1 USD from many of these food stalls, complete with a plastic spoon to eat with.
For many visitors, health is a concern, as is food safety. Despite their humble appearances, almost all food stands found in Thailand are sanitary, and even cleaner than their restaurant counterparts. It's very rare to hear of anyone that's gotten sick from eating at a roadside food stall, and even rarer to hear of illnesses from their drinks. Food stands tend to use the same bagged ice as restaurants, along with the same treated, clean, and completely disease-free bottled drinking water.
Some Thai dishes for the budget conscious food critic:
- Pad Thai Goong Sod – Fried rice noodles with shrimp. Thailand's national dish.
- Kuay Teow Gua Gai – Fried noodles with pepper and chicken.
- Khao Pad Gai/Moo – Fried rice with chicken/pork. A Thai dietary staple.
- Som Tum Thai/Boo – Papaya salad with shrimp (Thai style) or Crab (Boo).
- Khao Kapow Gai – Minced chicken with garlic on plain rice.
- Pedt Yang Bami – Chinese-style roasted duck with egg noodles.
- Tom Yum Goong – Sweet and spicy Thai soup with boiled shrimp.
- Gai Yang/Gai Tod – Country-style grilled or fried chicken.
- Laab Moo/Gai – Country-style minced pork/chicken with garlic and onion.
The dishes listed above range in price from 20THB (under $1 USD) to 80THB ($2.50 USD) at most street food stands and small restaurants.
Some Thai phrases to make Thai street food a little more manageable:
- Mai pet – “Not so spicy.” Pronounce “Mai” with a falling tone.
- Mai prick – “Not spicy at all.”
- Lae Kai Dao – “Add a fried egg.”
- Mai Warn – “No sugar.” Useful for low-carb dieters.
- Mai Nom – “No milk.” Useful for black coffee fans.
- Piss-et – “Extra/special sized portion.”
- Sai Lek – “Small sized portion.”
- Gap Baan – “Take home.”
Part 3: Keeping yourself entertained on a basic budget
Walk down the main street in any Thai resort town and you'll be bombarded with things to do. You could go SCUBA diving, with a hefty price tag attached. You could take a cooking class, again, for a fairly high fee. The vast majority of activities in Thailand seem to be fairly expensive. Again, it's a case of visible pricing and invisible pricing – many activities are much cheaper than they seem.
For example, renting a motorcycle and exploring local beaches on your own can cost as little as $5 a day (the going rate for renting a 100cc scooter.) Make your way around an island without a formal schedule to stick to, all for a fraction of the price of an organized tour. To enjoy Thailand on a small budget, you need to avoid group tours, pre-organized events, and other tourist activities.
Snorkeling on many of the country's best reefs, for example, can be a cheap affair or a costly group tour. Most tour operators charge over 1,000 baht for a day on the boat – an experience that you can replicate for less than 100 baht with a rented snorkel set and a local beach. Muay Thai boxing, an activity that costs thousands of baht through tour guides, is less than 400 baht per day if you walk into the training center and enquire on your own.
Many of Bangkok's best temples are free, or have only a minimal entrance fee.
In North Thailand, many of the best attractions are free. Huge waterfalls, mountain observatories, and incredible rice plantations can all be visited independently using a rental motorcycle. Be sure to pay a visit to Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain. While it's unlikely to impress anyone with its altitude, the view is stunning, the nearby food is incredible, and the fact that it's free is fantastic.
Part 4: 10 simple tips to get more from your vacation budget
- Don't book all of your hotels ahead of time.
Unless you're traveling at the peak of tourist season, hotels in Thailand will almost never be booked out. Instead of booking everything ahead of time, book a single night in advance and look for a guesthouse on day two.
- Visit Thailand in the low season (April until October.)
During this period, most hotels and attractions attract fewer customers, and lower their prices to enhance demand.
- Visit Northeast Thailand (Isaan.)
This part of Thailand is rarely visited by foreign tourists, and is home to many of the country's best outdoor sights and most authentic experiences.
- Mix rest days and activity days.
Want to take a break? Spend a day at the hotel and double your budget for the next day using the cash you saved.
- In popular areas, stay at the least crowded beaches.
In Phuket, Koh Samui, and other beach resorts, the less populated beaches are often half as expensive as the others, and cleaner.
- When in Bangkok, use public transportation.
Most tourists insist on using taxis in Bangkok, fearing that they'll get lost on the city's skytrain or subway. Don't do this. Bangkok has some major traffic issues, and sticking to taxis will cost you both time and money. All train lines have signs, tickets, and tourist guides available in English.
- Avoid the dreaded Tuk Tuk. These three-wheeled vehicles are a favorite of tourists for their exotic style and 'cheap' fares. In reality, they're needlessly expensive, highly unsafe, and not a good choice for long distance travel.
- Going long distance? Take the train.
Thailand has a great network of provincial trains, and almost all of the long-distance lines have an overnight sleeper service. Often this is less expensive than booking a hotel, with the added advantage of getting you to and from your destination.
- Learn to haggle, and do it properly.
Thais love to haggle, but their haggling culture is very different from other countries. Unlike Vietnam or Egypt, there's no advantage gained by being aggressive and staunch here. Have a good time, keep a smile on your face, and don't get aggressive – it will only work against you.
- Avoid tourist markets.
There are many outdoor markets in Bangkok, but only a few are home to the city's best prices on local goods. Avoid tourist markets like Patpong, Khao San, and MBK and do your shopping at local markets like Chatuchak, Klong Tom, and On Nut instead.