Dreaming of traveling long-term in Asia? With these tips, you just might be able to pull it off.
I’ve been perpetually traveling throughout Asia since 2018 and am proudly doing so as a backpacker. Growing up, I’d always assumed that travel was expensive and luxurious. My first passport wasn’t issued until 2015, and I didn’t use it until 2017. Needless to say, I wasn’t always traveling long-term around South and Southeast Asia.
Enter the discovery of budget backpacking. It was only then that I realized (aside from the flight) it WAS possible to explore the places of my dreams without an inheritance, provided I was okay with some discomfort. It has now been nearly four years since I took my first life-changing Asia backpacking trip, and I’m happy to report that I’m still questing around this stunning continent on a backpacker’s budget. But “budget” doesn’t mean boring. I’ve done everything from spending days cycling around a Laotian river island to trekking over glaciers in the majestic mountains of Pakistan. Budget backpacking is real, raw, and can be done for an entire year on an average of $10 per day.
In hopes of helping others who are interested in starting their own adventure, here are ten tips for backpacking Asia on an extreme budget. Once you get started, you’ll realize it’s a lot easier than you might think!
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Always Eat Local
Asia might just be the best place in the world for affordable eats. We’re talking street food carts, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and no-frills joints that are filled with locals and out-of-this-world taste. Some of the best meals I’ve had have come from these types of eateries, and each one was less than $3. When backpacking in Asia, the streets are where you’ll find the very best food too. Don’t think we’re compromising on taste here. An egg and noodles dish I bought from a Bangkok street cart remains on my mind nearly four years later. In India and Pakistan, you can easily find basic meals for less than $1–my go-to breakfast of chai, paratha, unda (egg), and channa (chickpea dish) costs about $1.75 and can easily feed two people. I recommend avoiding Western restaurant chains like the plague. If you want to splurge, put that money back into the local economy by doing so at a domestic restaurant.
Stick Your Thumb Out!
While hitchhiking has a negative connotation and is even illegal in many countries, you won’t find those attitudes in Asia. Certain countries in Asia are more familiar with the practice than others, but overall, it’s much more normalized than in the West. While hitchhiking might seem daunting at first, you can start out by only accepting rides from families and limiting your escapades to daytime hours. Hitchhiking is a budget backpacker tool in that it saves you money, but it also makes the ride a full-blown adventure. I’ve hitchhiked in several Asian countries at this point and can honestly say I remember each and every driver. You never know who you might meet, and it can very likely lead you to some cool connections. Unfortunately, guys have it easier on the safety front in this department. But in popular backpacking countries like Thailand or India, you should be able to find like-minded folks to hold a sign with you.
Stay With Locals
It’s the people who make the places you’re going to visit special, and if you do it right, you’ll even get to make some real local connections while also keeping your daily spending low. Whether through Couchsurfing or a random invitation—especially common in South Asia—staying with the people who call the country home is the absolute best way to get to know it truly. When being invited into a home, you often won’t be expected to pay anything, though you should pay back in some other way. But getting a chance to stay in someone’s home isn’t just good for budget backpacking. It also gives you the chance to make friends and immerse yourself into the culture in a way you can’t at a hostel or cheap motel.
Choose Overland Options
To stick to a $10 a day budget in Asia, you’re going to have to avoid flying at all costs. In all normal circumstances, I stick to local on-the-ground transit. Try shared vans, local jeeps in mountain regions, and trains, which are cheap all over Asia and make the journey a true experience.
This also applies to border crossings: always opt for the overland route. I’ve crossed the India-Pakistan border and the Laos-Cambodia border on foot and still remember so many unique moments from each experience. Aside from potentially saving hundreds of dollars, the feeling of moving from one country into another isn’t quite the same from the air or on wheels.
Prioritize Affordable Places
While Asia as a whole can be affordable to foreigners if you’re backpacking, let’s be real: not every Asian country is suitable for real budget travelers. For example, as beautiful as it may be, Bhutan charges all tourists a $250 per day minimum. Needless to say, I haven’t been there.
East Asia (China, Japan, and South Korea) will be heavy on the wallet and certainly very difficult to stick to a $10 per day budget, even when using all the tips and tricks on this list. So, when you’re planning your trip, think about where you’ll want to go. South Asia (minus the Maldives) is going to be the easiest to stick within this budget, and Southeast Asia is very close behind. In those two regions, you can easily spend $10 a day and still be able to enjoy the comforts of a private room more often than not. Even so, you don’t have to pull your East Asian travel dreams off the table, but the time you’ll be able to spend there on a low budget will be significantly less than the continent’s other regions.
Central Asia can also be backpacked within this budget, though public transportation in these countries (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) is limited, so you’ll have to be down to hitchhike a lot or increase your budget. Needless to say, all of Central Asia is more affordable than East Asia or almost anywhere in Europe.
Backpacking Can Be Uncomfortable but Worth It
I’m not going to lie–traveling as a backpacker is not glamorous. You’re going to have to get acquainted with squat toilets, cold water, and accept that you’ll often be using the sink (or a bucket) as a laundry machine. Let’s not forget the fact that a shower might not always be in the cards. Real budget travel doesn’t have wiggle room for air conditioning in your train compartment, and it’s definitely going to involve staying in some questionable hotels. But what you get in return is the freedom to immerse yourself in so many beautiful cultures and moments, all while doing, eating, and seeing more than you’d ever be able to at a luxury resort. To me, that undoubtedly makes foregoing some Western amenities worth it.
Camp Whenever You Can
Getting into camping completely changed my travel goals. I now crave meadows and serene natural areas more than anywhere else and prioritize these whenever possible. Not only are such locations magical, but they’re often free. Many Asian countries allow wild camping, which makes even a more high-ticket country like Oman have backpacking potential. As long as you have a tent, a sleeping bag, and ideally a sleeping mat, your home can be anywhere. Unlike the West, which often charges $50 per night just for a campsite, you can usually enjoy the forests, beaches, and other green spaces of Asia under the stars for a whopping $0 a night. Designated campsites also exist in many countries, and those rarely charge more than $4 a night.
Find a Travel Buddy
Let’s face it, traveling with someone will almost always be cheaper than traveling alone. I’ve gallivanted in both categories, and while I could easily spend around $5 a day when splitting costs, I’ve had some days where I have no choice but to go up to $15 while solo.
Southeast and South Asia are teeming with backpackers, hostels are great places to connect with them, and Couchsurfing and homestays are ideal for meeting locals. I’ve traveled all over Pakistan with a friend I made there and spent two weeks in India with a stellar multi-national group I ran into at a bonfire. Finding a travel buddy is easy, especially in popular backpacker locales, and it’s a great way to cut your costs while simultaneously helping another adventurer do the same.
But please don’t think I’m discouraging solo travel! It’s possible to make it in Asia alone on this budget, but you’ll just have to accept that some days, you might go over due to transport or other issues, and that’s okay.
Limit Expensive Attractions
Look, I’m not going to tell you not to visit Angkor Wat for nearly $50 (in fact, you should go if you’re in Cambodia), but I am going to tell you that you’re going to want to really limit paid attractions. Some are worth it, but others are overpriced for tourists and are best skipped. I particularly avoid attractions with dual pricing, unless the price is reasonable for my budget or the attraction is truly astounding.
Luckily, nature is usually free and offers the best experiences anyways. Sometimes, free attractions can even intersect with the popular paid ones. I got an iconic view of the Amer Fort in India from just across it. While the fort was the epitome of overpriced mass tourism, my spot from above cost exactly $0. Now that’s a budget backpacking win.
Get off the Beaten Path
Popular locales usually come with a few things: touts, scams, crowds, and TOURIST PRICES; this is why I always try to get off the beaten path no matter where I am. Heading to off-the-beaten-path hamlets—whether that be a country or a place within a country–almost always means lower prices, better food, and more genuine connections. When a place is infrequently visited, backpackers are welcomed more warmly. Prices are lower, and you’ll often find that fellow travelers are traveling for more than just a party.
My favorite place in the world, for instance, is Yarkhun Valley, a remote region of Pakistan’s Upper Chitral district. Aside from being engulfed by stunning mountains, the people of Yarkhun are amongst the friendliest in Pakistan, and the region has yet to become touched by mass tourism. Here, and in places like it, you’ll find backpacking in Asia at its very best. Unadulterated moments with those born a world apart, and often in surreal landscapes at that.
See those epic can’t-miss sites, but always make time for the less-visited spots. They’ll give you far better backpacker-friendly prices.