Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that I have a big complex spreadsheet to monitor our monthly travel budgets in Southeast Asia. We don’t track expenses down to the penny like some people, but do have a pretty detailed budget plan that keeps us in check so that we can sustain our travel long term.

We have an overall cash flow spreadsheet that maps out the broader plans for the whole trip. This is where stuff like flights get factored in, as well as minimum income objectives. Then we have mini budgets plotted out for each segment of our trip.

The Daily Needs Budget Spreadsheet

We’ve named our mini segment budgets the “daily needs” spreadsheet. It’s so called, because what it comes down to is how much pocket cash have today for daily needs like food.

We start with a target budget for that segment, then take out the money we need for accommodation, set aside some cash for special activities, then what’s left gets divided by the number of days we have left in that area and that’s our spending target for the day. We check in with a balance regularly, and of course depending on whether or not we went over or under our daily spending budget yesterday, it may be a little higher or lower going forward.

So far each segment has been pretty similar. All about a month long, around $2500CAD total budget, and the amounts have been roughly 1/3 each for accommodation, activities, and daily needs. While life out here has been pretty cheap all-around, we’re now on our 4th segment and looking at how each one compares.

NOTE: I’m talking in Canadian Dollars in this post, which at the time of writing is about $0.70 per USD.

Travel Spending In Southeast Asia So Far:

Chiang Mai Kota Kinabalu Danang
Number of Days 28 27 30
Total Spending $2802 $2527 $2411
Activities $1186 $1037 $893
Accommodation $771 $783 $810
Daily Needs $845 $706 $707
Avg. Spending / Day $100 $94 $81
Avg. Accommodation + Daily Needs / Day: $58 $55 $51

The patterns are shockingly similar, but of course just looking at the numbers doesn’t tell the whole story. They are similar because we’re designing the budgets beforehand and adjusting our travel to fit the budgets. So the real question is, what can you get for the above numbers? Danang looks the cheapest by far, but did that mean we downgraded our lifestyle?

Let’s have a look at the kind of life we had in each country.

Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Accommodation Quality for 28$/day

We moved around the city a bit, never in the center of the tourist action but not far away. The places were generally clean and cozy, but rooms were intended for 2 people so it got a bit cramped at times. We always had a pools. Generally, breakfast was not included, and when it was it was pretty mediocre. Not much selection for English on TV, but usually had great internet. Hotel staff were friendly, and rooms were cleaned and restocked with bottled water daily. AirBNB was a bit different as it had no housekeeping and very little contact with the host, but was in a bit of a more popular area.

The Opium Chiang Mai

Daily Life for $30/day

We had an initial panic when we got there and found our money wasn’t going to be endless like we thought. So for the first third of our stay we really pinched pennies. However, when we got organized with the budgets and got smarter with our accommodations, the panic went away and we found we had plenty of cash to allow us to eat our fill of banana pancakes and fruit shakes. We ate out for pretty much every meal, but nothing fancy, mostly small local shops. By the end of the stay we actually had too much Thai cash and could not spend our daily budgets, so we got a little crazy with massages and moved to a fancy hotel for the last few days.

Internet Cafes in Chiang Mai

A Month of Activities and Extras for $1200

We did A LOT in Chiang Mai. I’m still amazed with how much we managed to pack into the month. Aside from the tours and general fun stuff, our activities budget also included a week of preschool for Rae, 2 weeks of motorbike rental, a half dozen massages, and some cloths. In Chiang Mai, just walking out your door is an adventure, and you can have a great day with little or no money. We also did some bigger things though. The most expensive thing we did was the Elephant camp, which cost $250. We spent more in total than other places, but that activity money bought us a jammed packed itinerary and more memories than can be written down.

Swim with ElephantsLiving in Kota Kinabalu

Accommodation Quality for $29/day

Hotels in our price range were hard to come by, and the ones that we found had no pool and tiny rooms. Luckily we found an AirBNB place that had a great pool, a kitchen + living room, and plenty of bed space for all of us. It had a great view, but was far enough away that we had to make plans if we wanted to go anywhere. Of course there was no housekeeping and no breakfast, but it had a kitchen. No TV, but good internet. Other places we stayed at in Malaysia generally had TV with a few English movie channels. We also spent 2 nights on benches in the airport, and a few nights in Johar when we went to Legoland.

Kota Kinabalu Apartment

Daily Life for $26/day

Good food in KK wasn’t as affordable as other places, and not reasonable to eat out for every meal. Fortunately, we had a kitchen so we mainly shopped at the grocery store and cooked our own meals. We still ate out for about one “McDonalds level” meal per day though. Since we weren’t really too active on a day-to-day basis, there wasn’t a lot of snacking or other little expenses other than our 3 meals.

Kota Kinabalu Cooking

A Month of Activities and Extras for $1000

Motorbikes were not common in Kota Kinabalu, and even so they we wouldn’t have been able to fit one into our budget since they were about 3 times what we paid in Chiang Mai. We had to do without our own transportation. Also, activities in KK are fairly spread out. Our place was above a giant mall, so we mainly spent our free time exploring the mall. The activities spending was mainly on a few set outings, but also included some airport/transportation fees and 5 trips to the doctor/hospital. The big one was the Legoland trip which accounts for almost half the spending.

Living in Danang

Accomodation Quality for $28/day

We stayed at 3 main places including one AirBNB place which was a shared house with a number of other travellers. All were within a few minutes walk to the main beach. All but the AirBNB place included breakfasts, which were usually amazing buffets. All but the AirBNB place had daily housekeeping and restocking of coffee/tea, water, fresh and toothbrushes. All had nice pools. All had enough room for all 3 of us. Staff were very friendly. All had endless TV channels, including a dozen English movie and kids channels. One even had a full cinema and kids play room. The internet was sometimes terrible though.

Finger Hotel Pool

Daily Life for $24/day

We ate like kings pretty much every morning at the free breakfasts provided by our hotels. Then we usually had a small lunch and a bit of snacking, and our main big expense for the day would be dinner (usually around $10-20 for the 3 of us). We were usually pretty active every day, so also spending money on little things like gas for the motorbike.

Da Nang Beach

A Month of Activities and Extras for $900

We didn’t do many big outings or tours, but we definitely were not bored. The indoor playgrounds were a frequent paid activity, but a lot of the fun stuff didn’t cost much if anything. There is of course the beach, and the tourist town of Hoi An wasn’t too far away, the hotel pools, and I’m not going to lie… the English channels on TV were appretiated and used. The activities spending actually was more used on general “extra” stuff, not nessearily activities. We sent Rae to school for 9 days, rented a motorbike all month, spent $225 to renew our visa, and bought some supplies and Christmas gifts. The biggest activity expense was a food tour for $125, and after that it was Asia Park for $19.

Helio Center Outdoor Playground

Conclusion

One thing is for sure, expenses are lower, much lower, while traveling in Southeast Asia than they are living back home. Our total monthly budgets out here are easily half of what we rack up on our credit card alone in a typical month back home.

Kota Kinabalu was nice, but just doesn’t stack up against the other places. It would be more of a good place to do a vacation with some specific tours in mind than a place to travel long-term.

Danang is the opposite. Not many people seem to go there for a short vacation, but it’s hard to argue the fact that it was by far the best value for dollar place to travel we’ve seen so far. It made for a great place to settle in for a month.

Chiang Mai is where we spent the most money so far, but was also the most action packed. I can’t imagine ever being bored in Chiang Mai either as a vacationer or as a resident. I also think the cost would be closer to Danang in Chiang Mai if you stayed longer term (6+ months). There’s also the Thai food to consider, which is by far the best we’ve experienced anywhere in the world.

If I had to pick a place today to return to for a month or longer, I’d lean towards Danang. Nicole, however, leans towards Chiang Mai. We still have at least 3 or 4 places left to explore though, so we’ll report back in after the next batch!

Bonus: Vietnam Beyond Danang

We liked Danang so much that we decided to stay an extra month in Vietnam to explore other areas. So far in this second half we’ve been to Hue, are now in Ho Chi Minh, and will head up to Hanoi and Sappa before leaving to China. We’ve found prices are a bit higher outside of Danang, and accommodation not quite as amazing (for the price). But since we’ve been doing more big activities and also need to pay for travel between cities, we’ve had to get a bit tighter on the daily spending. So far, our accommodation + daily needs has been a bit higher than Danang, and not quite as glamerous. Ho Chi Minh is a very exciting city, very posh in some areas, and the food has definately not disappointed. But I think I’d still choose the beach and buffet breakfasts in Danang over the excitement of the big city if given the choice again.

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