How to Plan a Southeast Asia Digital Nomad Journey on a Budget

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Southeast Asia is known for being affordable, beautiful and comparatively safe. Keeping an eye on the costs and being thrifty is the key to a long, successful remote work journey. Before we break down a few costs by country, there are a few general tips that will help you save no matter where you end up.

Firstly, remember to factor visa costs into your finances. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand allow US tourists to pay for their visa on arrival, while Vietnam currently has an online e-visa to apply for in advance. Secondly, buy your tech at home—SE Asia is not served by the same companies, and import duty can be steep, so grab those bluetooth keyboards before you go. Make sure you buy and install a VPN before you leave home too. An online banking card such as Revolut can be very useful for paying local bills and budgeting apps are worth installing, to track your outgoings month by month.

Unlike Europe, you don’t need to travel in the off-season to make the trip affordable. One universal budgeting hack is to rent rooms monthly—all properties will have a much cheaper monthly rate. Rainy season lasts from July to October across the region, so pack your bags and head off in November for the best weather and a buzz of events. Here’s a country by country look at estimated costs to expect when you’re working with a budget

Cambodia

Home to Southeast Asia’s most famous historical sight, Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s beaches and islands, or inland jungles are popular with backpackers as it’s an irresistibly cheap country, but the infrastructure isn’t as developed as its neighbors’ so manage your expectations before arrival. 

Where to Live

Siem Reap. Cambodia’s second city is a fun, easy going place with a long standing expat community. While the stunning Angkor Wat ruins are the main draw, there’s lots more going on here than temples. It’s a more enjoyable place to be based than the capital Phnom Penh and has more reliable wifi and mod-cons than being based in a coastal town. 

Monthly Rent

You can rent a nice room in a guesthouse for $100 a month or find a condo for $150 upwards. These prices get you a simple but clean spot. Add another $20 for utilities—almost all places will charge for electricity—which is fair given how varied our air-conditioning reliance is.

Weekly Food Costs

If you’re a keen cook and happy to prepare meals at home you can live off as little at $25 a week, but otherwise $10 a day should get you by at local cafes. 

Indonesia

The maritime nation, comprising over 17,000 islands, is the world’s largest archipelago. While Jakarta is the capital city, it’s Bali that most travellers flock to, famous for its surfing, partying and busy beaches. The island is so much more than that though, steeped in tradition and awash with stunning natural sights awaiting those who venture out to find them.

Where to Live: 

Canggu, Bali. This town on Indonesia’s most famous island is a global hotspot for digital nomads so you’ll likely want to base yourself here while you make friends and settle in, making the most of the health and wellness activities or bars and parties. It’s definitely the higher end of Bali’s prices, you pay to be in the center of the action.

Monthly Rent

Staying at a cute guest house on a monthly basis is going to cost you a minimum of $330, while renting a room in a shared villa with other nomads can cost anything from $500 to $1,000 per month.

Weekly Food Costs

While on a budget, stick with local dishes from a Warung—which is kind of like a local roadside diner—open air with small tables and chairs on the street. Meals are between $2 to $5 depending on the portion size you go for, so budget $10 a day: $70.

Malaysia

Often foolishly bounced through as a bridge between Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia is a pleasant surprise, full of charming heritage laden old towns and luscious green mountain sides. The demographic is a melting pot of cultures, with Malay, Tamil and Chinese Malaysians all living side by side for centuries, blessing the nation with a rich tapestry of culture and food to explore.

Where to Live

Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s capital is one of SE Asia’s biggest and most diverse metropolises. While it may initially feel colossal, KL is very nomad friendly: consistently ranked a top 10 favorite for expats. There’s a long-standing cultural diversity (the city’s locals are of Chinese, Indian and Malayan descent), a wide use of English, comparatively cheap rent for what you get and outstanding food, so don’t rush around, take time to settle in and make the most of these perks.

Monthly Rent

As in any huge city this ranges wildly but at the cheapest end you can find a nice room in a house share for $200 a month on Airbnb. The platform is the best place to look for monthly rents, which are offered at a chunky discount if you book for 28 days or more. You can find fancy condos for $500 a month through diligent searching.

Weekly Food Costs

To keep the budget low, grab a plastic chair at a Mamak, an open-air kiosk or stall, where cheap halal Indian-Malaysian food is served. Even in posh areas you can grab a hearty meal at a Mamak for $2 to $4. So at a push you could live off $10 a day, so $70 a week.

Thailand

The ‘Land of Smiles’ is known for being the friendliest nation in Southeast Asia, perhaps as they’ve had a vast tourism scene for longer than most. The beaches and islands attract legions of visitors year on year and the historically rich north is on many backpackers' lists, as well as the world famous cuisine.

Where to Live

Chiang Mai. Long regarded as the Digital Nomad capital of South East Asia, Thailand’s second city is a haven for remote workers searching for cheap rent and fast wifi. It’s also incredibly beautiful, full of temples and surrounded by mountains and jungle.

Monthly Rent

You can find sizable rooms in nice long stay guest houses in Chiang Mai for $150 a month, contract free and often deposit free. If you know you’ll stay for a while, 3 month and 6 month contracts are available at one of the many condo buildings in the city’s outer neighborhoods which are usually around $200- $350 per month - but you’ll be asked for a deposit.

Weekly Food Costs

Street food is good and incredibly cheap—you could ostensibly live off $5 per day food budget, so $35 a week, but the city is also awash with international options from across the world so you’ll want to extend that budget here and there.

Vietnam

Just as friendly as Thailand, Vietnam is almost as safe and hospitable and certainly equally as cost effective a country to be based in. It’s a long thin country so you get fans of the south and fans of the north, but it’s very easy to travel between the two—on the excellent bus and train networks.

Where to Live

Da Nang. Most nomads and remote workers end up in Da Nang, the vibrant coastal city next to tourist hub Hoi An. It’s less hectic and cheaper than Saigon or Hanoi, very few tourists stop here, but it's eminently liveable. You get a great work/life balance and time to make the most of the fantastic long stretches of beach as well as the activities organized by a like-minded community of expats.

Monthly Rent

Studio apartments start from $400 a month—and these are nice, modern places near the beach in An Thượng, the popular area for nomads and expats, so short term rentals are easy to find. But live on the other side of the river, in the city side, and find rooms for $200 a month upwards.

Weekly Food Costs

Again it depends on your taste but Vietnamese street food is known for being some of the best in the world so you can get by on $5 per day or $35 a week.

Lucie Grace
November 29, 2022
6.0
min read

Lucie Grace is a British freelance writer, based in Chiang Mai. She lived in India throughout 2020 and 2021 and misses it daily. You can read her bylines in The Daily Beast, Fodor’s, The Independent and The Times.

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