Tested and proven, Bangkok is one of the most affordable places in the world to go on relatively spontaneous solo backpacking trips.
Earlier in November, I found out due to my VISA expiration (and the stubborn FBI background check that has been circulating the desks in D.C. for four months) that I had to basically go on, in nicer words, a “mandatory unpaid vacation.” It could be anywhere, as long as I got out and came back in to jumpstart my three-month VISA-free privilege as a Taiwanese passport holder. Many expats can relate to this as the fellow victims of diplomatic bull-hickey.
So, as an eye-roll to the government for their get-off-my-lawn-esque foreign policy, I decided that my mandatory vacation should have as little financial impact on my life as possible.
As my own personal challenge and a bet with friends, I decided to attempt this entire trip without spending more than NT$10,000, which is currently roughly US$300, plane ticket included.
Here are the details on how I pulled it off:
(Note: The currency exchange during my visit was roughly US$1 = 30฿, with the Thai Baht slightly higher than the Taiwan Dollar, during its most popular tourist season in December.)
1. Explore the magic of the new Budget Airlines in Asia
About two weeks before my “get-the-hell-outta-here” date, Taiwanese news literally wouldn’t shut up about these new airlines and crazy deals like NT$550 flights to Thailand or NT$88 flights to Macau. I was like, OMG this is a sign!
I quickly became one of those people who set their alarm, ready to cause a stampede in the virtual doorbuster.
But of course these deals are publicity stunts and aren’t technologically prepared for the rush. The sites crashed, as predicted. From the outrage on social media it looked like only 3 people actually got the deals. The rest of us got the leftovers, which were roughly NT$5000 round-trip tickets to Bangkok. At a price still much cheaper than the usual, I was like: I’ll take it!
So I flew “V Air,” an adorably mascotted and almost overly Taiwanese new airline that seemed to staff their flight attendants with MTVAsia D-listers. At one point of the flight, they actually started performing a strange choreographed dance routine to a Mariah Carey song. Oh, the things you gotta put up with on budget airlines.
Downside: It was such a new airline that it was almost impossible to find its one sole kiosk in the airport. And if you ask the surrounding airport staff, they will also have NO IDEA WHERE IT IS. Just be prepared to be scavenging the whole terminal for the happy bear (who you’ll want to choke once you finally find). Warning: the information on their website is dead wrong.
Upside: Perhaps due to its unknown status, the return flight was about half empty. On the return trip, I got to lie down flat across three seats. ACROSS THREE SEATS! It was really exciting since that hasn’t happened to me since I was less than a meter tall. And it provided a good fortress against the freakishly bubbly flight attendants and their choreography.
2. Keep it Real
Bangkok has an incredible amount and diverse options of hostels and guest houses. I was able to find beds for around 150฿ a night, 250฿ for warm showers, no mosquitos, more legitimacy, and less hippies.
Of course, these aren’t going to be glamorous. Throw out your desire for privacy, and I rate the cleanliness with a sorta there but not really. However, I’m a firm believer in “vacations” that are more for the experience than the luxury. I like it when a trip abroad actually grounds you, and makes you appreciate your own home upon return. Instead of the sigh of disappointment upon arriving home, I later returned to Taipei embracing my tiny fourth-floor apartment and the stiff bamboo mattress that I once hated.
Before I arrived in Bangkok, I booked a night at the Feel At Home hostel on Charkrapong Road, a short walk away from the famous Khaosan road known for its constant flock of backpackers. No regrets on this one – it was a great place to start. The crowd is very friendly, and there are a lot of fellow travelers going solo in a foreign land who are willing to partner up with you.
Later on, I decided explore other options around the neighborhood. After being rudely turned away by the Korean hostels (Only 180฿ for mixed dorm, but still not worth the racism), I stumbled upon the Flapping Duck Guest House. It’s an adorable wooden home sitting by the Chao Phraya river, nicely hidden behind the Sumen Fort. The place has a lot of character, with decorations and residents that looked straight out of the Urban Outfitters’ Pinterest board. Everything was so adorably eccentric, the money was kept in fanny packs and bookkeeping recorded in tiny leather-bound notebooks.
It was only 150฿ a night for a bed in a mixed dorm room. I enjoyed the vibe of the place, it was relaxing and had a nice front yard with lounge chairs where free-spirited creatives spend their whole days drinking Chang, smoking cigarettes and checking their smartphones. The owner of the place was a Thai/Korean Jack Sparrow-lookalike, who was very friendly and played random chords on the guitar all day. When he wasn’t there, a Thai “ladyboy” (nicest term I could find) would work as the “receptionist” (and I quote this because what she really did was sit around and chain smoke). Her English wasn’t very good, but I could still sense her disdain toward me. Seeing that I was Asian, she initially spoke to me in Thai. When I had expressed that I couldn’t speak it, it was like seeing someone find out you’re a Donal Trump supporter: she was immediately turned off, wouldn’t look me in the eye, and became the least helpful person I had ever met on the trip. As the receptionist of the place I was staying, it was kind of a problem. But I guess you get what you paid for.
In conclusion, staying in Bangkok for holiday is a very different experience for people depending on your budget, social standing, and, most of all, race. The guide books don’t really tell you anything about that, do they?
3. Don’t be a Shameless Tourist
PRIORITIZE: What are you there to see? What do you want to get out of your trip? If you want to spend every night drinking and clubbing on Khaosan Road with wasted European tourists, you will immediately fail as a budget backpacker. (although Chang beers are pretty cheap!) But If you are there for the sights, the culture, the food, and the people, this is more up your alley.
Within my budget, I was still able to visit the Ayutthaya temples, the floating market, get a sense of the nearby tourist-free villages, meet fellow wandering souls at a Couchsurfing events, and grab beers with a few new backpacking friends. I must disclaim that these were all only affordable because I insisted, perhaps too stubbornly, on using the public transportation system.
Be aware that taxis and Tuk Tuk’s are always trying to scam tourists. You must relentlessly bargain. In my case, I avoided them at all cost, and only used a taxi once.
The busses are pretty convenient, and I developed a particular fancy for the non-air conditioned vehicles that only cost 7฿. (Sometimes it was free. I honestly still don’t know how it works) Although the traffic in Bangkok is just a hot mess, being in an open-windowed bus allows you first-class seats to the seeing and feeling the city. I spent a day just taking random busses around, and walking in the quiet residential neighborhoods, away from the chaos of the city and the drunks on tourist row.
Furthermore, if you want to go on one-day trips like Ayutthaya or the Floating Markets, I highly recommend figuring out how to get there on your own. A guided tour to Ayutthaya costs at least 450฿, but a one-way bus ticket there costs only 60฿, with bike rentals for 40฿ a day.
In other words, try to be as local as you possibly can, even if you fail miserably. It’s about the journey as much as the destination, grasshopper.
4. Be Disposable
With an only 10kg allowance for my one carry-on bag, I only packed things that I don’t mind getting rid of. To my great discovery, there was a “We Buy Everything” stand nearby Khaosan Road, displaying rows and rows of used hiking boots, books, backpacks, and old guitars from other travelers around the world. There, I got to add more leeway to my budget and shed some luggage weight by getting rid of my neck pillow, power bank, books, and sneakers. Don’t forget to reverse-bargain with the shop owner, and start your price very high. Use your charm!
The extra income allowed me to go on a shopping spree for souvenirs on the very last day, marking a great end to a great trip.
5. Trust Your Gut
I shocked almost everyone that I told about my solo backpacking trip. A few days before I left, my mom even sent me messages warning me about sex trafficking and kidnapping. Bless her heart.
But I’d like to refute all these terrible stereotypes and presumptions of places like Bangkok – IT IS NOT DANGEROUS.
My advise for mothers of wandering souls – don’t worry about your child. In a place like Bangkok where backpackers are abundant, most travelers are nothing but friendly to each other. Sharing a dorm room with eccentric hippies, European party boys, loud British teenage girls, and Swedish hikers, there was a strange subliminal trust among us despite our differences. We are all on the same boat.
The locals also don’t want anything else from the foreigners but for them to buy their services, products, or whatever, just like any other tourist-prone locations.
Overall, I encountered good people. I allowed my instinct to be my guidebook and made leaps of faith when my gut backed it up. I think too many people are terrified of the entire concept of traveling alone solely because of stereotypes and social stigma.
But of course the trip wasn’t all butterflies and daisies, I had moments of frustration, feeling lost, and loneliness, but there’s a grand payoff.
Living modestly pulled me back to earth and reminded me to stay humble. The people I met reminded me of just how big the world is, and how little of it I’ve actually had the chance to see. Being alone made me realize the value of independence, and how much it actually weighs in a person’s life. I got to further strengthen my intuition, and added equations to the that ever-changing algorithm of knowing who t0 trust. Most of all, I got one step closer, perhaps at a totally diverted direction, at figuring out what I really want in this life.
Stay rootless, my friends.