Traveling in Thailand today is a far cry from the days when you could get a picture-perfect bungalow on a white-sand beach for less than two dollars a night. Accommodation, transport, food and drink have all risen in price, and many visitors find their baht doesn’t go as far as they had hoped. All the same, there are still plenty of places where it is possible to survive – and even pretty comfortably – on $20 per day, or even less. By sidestepping the most overrun tourist hotspots, it can be easy to get more bang for your buck, and still have a great (even better) break in paradise.
Prachuap Kiri Khan
While looking out over the curving golden bays and majestic limestone outcrops that lie just off the shore of this stunning fishing port town and provincial capital, you could easily believe you were much further than 3.5 hours from Bangkok. Yet Prachuap Kiri Khan is much cheaper than places like Krabi or Phi Phi on the Andaman coast.
Prachuap Kiri Khan largely slips off the radar of the majority of Thailand’s tourist arrivals, which is definitely a case of their loss and your gain. A lack of foreign tourists – those visitors who do come here are largely Thais – means prices are much lower than elsewhere, particularly in the nearby tourist center of Hua Hin, in the same province and just an hour away to the north.
A basic but comfortable double room at the Yuttichai Hotel, within walking distance of the centrally located train station, will set you back just 250 baht; that’s around $4 per person. Central Prachuap Kiri Khan is small enough to get around on foot, and the attractions in town are within easy reach – take a walk up the hundred or so steps to the top of Mirror Mountain (Khao Takiab), to get a splendid view out to sea, wander around an abandoned temple complex and mix with the local monkey population.
The nearby town shrine is also worth a visit, and a 100 baht ($3) tuk-tuk ride will get you to the practically deserted Ao Noi, where you can climb a few more steps to discover a slightly spooky cave temple with two enormous reclining Buddha statues, and row after row of smaller sitting Buddhas. There are more great views from up here – just pack some lunch, as there is nowhere to buy a thing.
A similar tuk-tuk fare will get you to Ao Manao, a stunning stretch of beach inside a protected Thai air force base – expect to have to sign in before spending a day of paradise on this sheltered cove, relaxing on the wide stretch of sand as you tuck in to spicy papaya salad and a selection of rice and fresh seafood dishes at dirt cheap prices (think about 200 baht, or $6, for a decent spread). Back in town, you can satisfy all your cravings at one of the many street-side restaurants or the fabulous night market, where you’ll find vendors with every Thai speciality under the sun for as little as 20 baht ($0.60).
Yuttichai Hotel, 115 Kong Kiat Road, Prachuap Kiri Khan. Tel: 0066 3 261 1055
At the opposite extreme from Prachuap Kiri Khan, Kanchanaburi is anything but off the tourist circuit. In fact, this provincial capital two to three hours north-west of Bangkok is the destination of many a visitor to Thailand, and for good reason. The town has a good party scene on Maenam Kwai Road, dubbed a lower-key equivalent of Bangkok’s infamous Khao San. It is also famous as the home of the Bridge Over the River Kwai, constructed by prisoners of war in World War Two, and there are also several cemeteries and memorials to the war dead within easy reach in the town center.
Finally, out of town but cheap and easy to get to by public bus (90 minutes, bus number 8170, fare 45 baht, $1,45), the stunning Erawan waterfalls are a must-see – chances are, if you have seen a photo of a waterfall in Thailand, it was one of the seven levels at Erawan. A trek to the top is hard work but rewarding for the clear, swimmable pools and all but deserted area you will have to yourself. Fish in the pools will also nibble away at the dead skin on your feet for a free pedicure – an interesting experience, but not one that everyone is fond of! Note that there is a 200 baht ($6.50) entrance fee to Erawan.
Read more: Soak up nature in Erawan National Park
Thanks to the high number of tourists who descend on Kanchanaburi, and the relatively high number of foreign expats who also call the town home for at least part of the year, prices are low – in fact, it is one of the cheapest places in the country for a beer, and the infamous 10 Baht Bar on Maenam Kwai Road will serve you a local whisky and soda for $0.30 (just expect to pay a deposit on the glass, which you will lose if it ends up broken).
There are cheap eats to be had at stalls and restaurants along Maenam Kwai Road – favorites include Mangosteen for their friendly service, authentic food and wallet-friendly meal deals – and even cheaper ones at the regular night market near the bus station in the town center. A delicious plate of Indian-inspired southern Thai style chicken biryani and infused yellow rice (khao mok gai) will set you back 25 baht ($0.80).
Sleeping is cheap here too: the cheapest rooms at well-known and long-running Jolly Frog Backpackers go for as little as 70 baht ($2.25) per night, but we are talking basic – think dark and rundown, with grimy shared bathrooms. A better choice is Tamarind Guesthouse, where the beds are a little hard but you will get more privacy, better service and a nicer bathroom. Fan rooms range between 150 and 350 baht ($4.85-$11.35) depending on whether you want a shared or private bathroom.
To get to Kanchanaburi, take a minivan from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal (Mo Chit), southern bus terminal (Sai Tai Mai), or from outside the Royal Hotel near Khaosan Road – wherever you leave from, expect to pay between 100 and 120 baht ($3.25-$3.90). Regular buses are also available from both terminals for a similar price; they take slightly longer but tend to have more room for luggage, which is very limited on the minivans.
The most scenic way to arrive is by basic but comfortable and atmospheric third-class train, from Bangkok’s Thonburi station – twice daily departures take around three hours in the week and cost 100 baht ($3.25), while at the weekend there are tourist excursion trains which make a return day trip from Bangkok for 120 baht ($3.90). Moving on from Kanchanaburi, experience more seclusion in the remote town of Sangkhlaburi, near the Burmese border – the laidback atmosphere makes it one of this author’s favorite spots in the whole country, and a three-and-a-half-hour minivan journey from Kanchanaburi will get you there for 175 baht ($5.65).
10 Baht Bar, Maenam Kwai Road, Kanchanaburi.
Mangosteen Café, 13 Maenam Kwai Road, Kanchanaburi. Tel: 0066 81 793 5814
Jolly Frog Backpackers, 28 Soi China, Kanchanaburi. Tel: 0066 3 451 4579
Tamarind Guesthouse, 29/1 Maenam Kwai Road, Kanchanaburi.
Read more: Sangkhlaburi
Thailand’s northeastern region, known as Isaan, is far less visited by tourists and retains much of its original character. With that comes lower prices and, despite it being touted as the ‘gateway to Isaan’ and one of the area’s more developed cities, Khon Kaen is really no exception.
Far from Bangkok, perhaps your greatest expense in visiting Khon Kaen will be getting here. The cheapest way to make the trip is by bus, leaving from the capital’s northern bus terminal (Mo Chit) – the seven-hour journey costs 193 baht ($6.25), with 17 departures a day. The train, leaving from Hualumphong Station in Bangkok, is more scenic and perhaps more comfortable, but also more expensive – anywhere between 227 baht for a third-class seat to 1,068 baht for a first-class sleeper cabin on the eight to ten hour ride.
Once there, explore the stimulating day and night markets and chow down on an assortment of Thai and local Isaan food. Spicy papaya salad (somtum) and grilled chicken (gai yaang) are in abundance, while stacks of pork satay skewers will set you back less than a dollar. You can rest your head at the First Choice guesthouse, with rooms from 150 baht ($4.85) per night and levels of luxury to match; you will sleep better at the Saen Samran Hotel (single rooms from 170 baht, $5.50, per night) or the D’Ma Hotel, where standard doubles go for 350 baht ($11.35) but where it is also worth upgrading to a deluxe room for 480 baht ($15.55) if you can, since you will see a massive jump in comfort levels.
Sometimes the best things to see and do are free, and that is certainly the case in Khon Kaen – just wandering the streets and observing everyday life can be enjoyable, while a stroll around the huge, grass-banked Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake is a pleasant escape from the sweltering heat of the city center. Bicycles can be rented for 20 baht ($0.65) per hour, and a lakeside market springs up in the late afternoon, with several food stalls staying open into the evening. If the walk from town to the lake is too much, one of the light-blue number 8 share taxis (songthaews) will take you there for the flat fare of 8 baht ($0.25) – just hail it down from the side of the road.
First Choice, 18/8 Phimphaseut Road, Khon Kaen. Tel: 0066 81 546 2085
Saen Samran Hotel, 55-59 Klangmuang Road, Khon Kaen. Tel: 0066 4 323 9611
D’Ma Hotel, Chi Tha Khon Road, Khon Kaen. Tel: 0066 4 332 1562
Read more: Top Travel Tips for Thailand
- Chris Wotton
All photos courtesy of Chris Wotton.