There’s a reason Thailand is one of the most popular vacation destinations for everyone from backpackers to families to couples looking for a romantic escape. Between stunning southern beaches, amazing food, a seemingly endless array of cultural attractions, some of the best diving and snorkeling you’ll find anywhere and the chance to hike in one of the nation’s many national parks (there are more than 100 here), it’s no surprise that Thailand is atop many a traveler’s bucket list.
The thing about Thailand however, is that there can be some sticker shock when it comes to sourcing flights – they can seem pricey. But once you get to Thailand, everything – from food and accommodations to sightseeing and beer – is a lot cheaper than what you’d find in many vacation destinations. With that in mind, we’re sharing some tips and hacks for visiting Thailand on a budget.
Thai currency and conversions
Just so you know what you’re dealing with in terms of currency before you start budgeting and before you go, the Thai Baht (THB) is the official currency of Thailand and at the time of writing USD $1 is equal to around 35 THB. 100 THB converts to around USD $2.85 (or round up to $3 to make things easier, conversion-wise).
There is a wide range of accommodation in Thailand, from multi-bed dorms and simple guesthouses, to glitzy high-rise hotels and sprawling beach resorts. But since this is a budget-focused piece, we’ll skip the latter and concentrate on the former. Hostels, guesthouses, bungalows and budget hotels are plentiful in Thailand and all offer their own form of affordable accommodation, depending on what your needs are and what you want to spend. The cheapest options, for the most part, are going to be hostel dorm rooms, which usually range from 100-150 THB per night. Hostels are a great option if you’re looking to meet other travellers, but keep in mind that more upmarket, boutique-style hostels will likely cost more than a budget guesthouse, so look into whether the hostel’s amenities will be worth it before you book.
Guesthouses and bungalows are small, usually basic hotels with bungalows typically being the option found close to the beach. The location and amenities will affect the ultimate price, but for a simple room with a double bed and a fan you can expect to pay around 300 TBH per night in cities and 200 THB per night in more rural areas and small towns. Prices go up in big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, with the same basic room going for around 400 TBH. In most cases, you’ll be able to find guesthouses and bungalows with en-suite bathrooms but that may not always be the case. Depending on what your budget is, the more you pay, the more perks you’ll get, such as air conditioning, more stylish furnishings, in-room Wi-Fi, a small fridge, etc.
Tip: Look at a variety of rooms. Often in one guesthouse, the look, feel and furnishings of rooms can differ wildly, so it’s a good idea to look at a few.
The easiest way to save money on food in Thailand is to eat like a local. Sticking to western-style restaurants will mean paying close to western prices, but if you stick to street food and night markets, you’ll pay as little as 50 TBH for a plate of noodles with vegetables. For something more filling, you’re looking at up to 100-120 TBH. Night markets can be found in almost every city and town and are basically a congregation of food stalls that operate from about 6 p.m. well into the night. If you’ve never experienced eating from street stalls it can be intimidating, but if you bring along common sense and a sense of adventure, you’re in for a treat. Just look for the busiest stalls as they are obviously local favourites and will also have the highest turnover of food (i.e. food won’t be sitting around long).
Bangkok’s streets are lined with food vendors of all kinds but there is an especially high concentration in Chinatown, along the backpacker stretch of Khao San Road, Bangkok’s Old Town (Banglamphu) and Silom and Sathorn roads (the general business district). In Chiang Mai, night markets abound and you can also find food stalls at regular markets as well. Popular spots to find food stalls in Chiang Mai include the night market on Chang Puak Gate (or North Gate) and the Sunday Walking Market.
Tip: Thirsty? Buying beer at a 7-11 (of which there are many all over Thailand) is your cheapest option and will set you back as little as 40 TBH. This is a great option if your guesthouse room has a fridge.
Excursions and activities
There is so much to see and do all over Thailand that you could come back year after year for a decade and not experience all of it. Budget-wise, there’s a lot you can do for free, like exploring markets (without shopping) and sightseeing on foot.
In the south, the most expensive activity is generally diving, so skipping that can protect your wallet. But, since there is so much to see under the water, consider snorkeling instead. If you’re on an island, it’s cheap to either rent snorkeling equipment from your bungalow (most will have equipment on offer) or you can hire a boat to take you further afield (a particularly good option if there are a few of you splitting the cost). Otherwise, relaxing on the beach is a no-cost activity.
Bangkok offers a multitude of attractions, many of which can be experienced for free or for fairly cheap. In terms of free activities, you can’t go to Bangkok (or Thailand in general) without visiting a temple and the tremendous Wat Pho with its giant (150 feet) reclining Buddha is a must. The cost is only around 200 THB and that includes access to the grounds around the temple where there’s lots to see including sculptures and carvings.
Hanging out in sprawling Lumpini Park is also free and the vast green space offers trails, a lake and free aerobics classes in the evenings. Other fun options include wandering the massive and colourful Chatuchak Weekend Market (also called JJ Market), climbing the 318 steps to the top of the Golden Mount for great views over the city and exploring Chinatown.
Chiang Mai also offers a lot of free and low-cost things to see and do. Explore Chiang Mai’s Old City with its temples, markets, food stalls and shops., it’s free and one of the main draws of Chiang Mai. You can also spend time visiting the city’s numerous temples (most of which are free to enter), checking out the city’s many markets and listening to free jazz courtesy of North Gate Jazz Co-op, where there’s no cover or need to buy drinks to listen. Two low-cost options include visiting Huay Tung Tao Lake, with its backdrop of lush, green hills (50 THB) and exploring the waterfalls and trails of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park (200 THB, 100 THB for kids).
There are many ways to get around in Thailand including bus, train, domestic airlines, taxis and tuk-tuks. Within a city or town, taxis are generally your best bet budget-wise because they’re metered whereas tuk-tuks are not. If you do take a tuk-tuk, nail down the price before you set off to avoid over-paying once you arrive.
Going in between towns, buses are an affordable option and the bus network is extensive, making it easier to get around. It can often be cheaper to book an overnight bus if you’re going longer distances, depending on your capacity for sleeping on buses. Budget airlines like Air Asia and Nok Air are also an option travelling say, from Bangkok down to the islands, if you can find a good deal.
Tip: In Bangkok, the Skytrain (BTS) and underground (MRT) rail systems make for a fast, cheap and efficient way to get around. A one-day pass will run you around 120 THB.
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Main image: istockphoto/lzf