Thailand backpacker budget: mainland vs islands

Thailand can be a budget backpacker’s dream but it can also be a nightmare.

As the country’s travel industry flourishes, so too do opportunistic and unscrupulous businesses looking to cash in.

The Ancient City in Bangkok, ThailandLong heralded as a cheap and extremely cheerful destination for backpackers and flashpackers alike, it’s no secret that Thailand is no longer as cheap as it once was – and it’s certainly not as cheap as some of its South East Asian neighbours.

Crafty Thais have cottoned on to the value of the tourist dollar – or pound – and are exploiting it in a big way, bumping up the prices of goods and services in popular travel spots throughout the country and particularly on the Thai islands.

As a result, Thailand is seemingly made up of hundreds of different economies; everywhere you go the cost of travel varies wildly.

The challenge for backpackers, then, is in understanding how this system works and budgeting for it.

The price of beer in Thailand

Nowhere is this cynical tourist-pricing strategy more obvious than in the price of beer – particularly at restaurants, bars and pubs on the Thai islands.

Thailand's most impressive island? Koh TaoA beer at a bar on the Khao San Road, for example, will likely cost a little bit more than the same beer elsewhere in Bangkok, roughly the same as one in Chiang Mai, more than a beer in Chiang Rai and considerably less than one on the Thai Islands.

Thus, you can expect to pay approximately 90 baht ($2.84US) for a Chang in Bangkok’s backpacker districts and 60-70 baht outside of those areas. A Chang will set you back roughly the same in Chiang Mai – about 90 baht – but an equally delicious Leo will cost only 65 baht ($2US) at Chiang Rai’s popular night market.

In the islands, however, you can expect to pay anything up to 60 baht for a small beer and 100 baht or more for a large one.

The cost of food in Thailand

Even McDonald’s, that universal bastion of fatty fast food, raises or lowers its prices depending on where a restaurant is based. You can expect to pay more for a Big Mac on Khao San Road or near the Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai and considerably more for one in Koh Samui or Phuket.

Food at the Chiang Mai night bazaarKFC and The Pizza Company appear to be holding steady – at least for the moment – with the unusual side effect being that it’s currently cheaper to get one pizza, garlic bread, pasta, a plate of chicken bites and a large bottle of soft-drink (enough to feed three people) at The Pizza Company than it is to dine for two at your average Italian restaurant in Chaweng or Lamai in Koh Samui.

But if you’re looking for value-for-money and a bit of culture with your food then you’re much better off grabbing a Pad Thai from a street vendor. They aren’t immune to hiking up their prices themselves, albeit to such a small degree that it really doesn’t matter anyway.

What’s the price of accommodation in Thailand?

You can get decent accommodation for two people anywhere in Thailand for less than 400 baht ($12.60US) – but there’s no denying you get more bang for your buck on the mainland than you do in the islands.

Nice accommodation in Chiang Mai during Songkran – a period of about a week when most hotels, motels and guesthouses fill up – shouldn’t set you back more than 250 baht ($7.90US) a night. And that’s with a hot shower, a communal deck and free Wi-Fi. Maybe even a fridge.

In Koh Samui or Koh Tao, however, 450 baht ($14US) will get you a cabin within walking distance of the beach, a dodgy Wi-Fi connection and a cold shower.

It’s still very cheap but it highlights the significant discrepancy between the mainland and the Thai islands.

Fierce-looking Thai statues in Ayutthaya

The price of public transport in Thailand

You can’t avoid catching public transport in Thailand. Sooner or later you will have to flag down one of the country’s ubiquitous taxis, tuk-tuks or songtaew (sometimes spelt “songteaw” or “songthaew”).

And this is where the cost of travel gets complicated. Taxis in Bangkok are seemingly cheaper than anywhere else but you’ll end up paying more than you would in Chiang Mai, say, because it’ll take you longer to get anywhere due to the city’s atrocious traffic conditions.

In Chiang Mai you’re better off flagging down a songtaew, a truck with seats in the back that will take you anywhere you want to go for 20-40 baht – or 60 baht if you’re going a great distance. You don’t even need to negotiate much because it’s the same price for everyone.

Now, just because a songtaew is a brilliant and reliable means of transportation in Chiang Mai doesn’t mean you should catch one in the islands without first negotiating a price. Island-based songteaw drivers will unashamedly ask for as much as 100 baht for taking you only a short distance.

Meanwhile taxis on the islands are worse. These greedy opportunists might try to charge as much as 200 baht ($6US) to take you around the block.

If in doubt, always negotiate before you get in a taxi, songteaw or tuk-tuk – or ask the usually-friendly locals how much they’d expect to pay.

Picturesque Thai long-boats in the islands

Thailand can be as cheap or as expensive as you let it. Always shop around if possible and keep in mind when planning your trip that many great – and cheap – accommodation options aren’t available to book online so it’s often worth turning up without a reservation. It’s always cheaper to eat on the street and if you feel you’re being ripped off by a taxi or tuk-tuk then demand they pull over and let you out.

At the end of the day, Thailand is an incredibly backpacker-friendly country and one that remains a lot cheaper than the West in terms of travel essentials – food, accommodation, transport and beer – whether you’re on the Thai mainland or in the more expensive Thai islands. Also check out the best places to visit in Thailand.

About Simon Petersen 285 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

9 Comments

  1. Sup man, I am coming to Thailand in November for forty days and was wondering what you personally think about hitchhiking in Thailand? Safe? Unsafe? etc.
    Cheers,
    J

    • Hey Joe, sorry for the delay. I didn’t hitchhike in Thailand, so it’s hard to say. I did take one random ride from a stranger and that was in the middle of a storm! Honestly though, I think you’ll have no trouble thumbing a ride because everyone is super friendly over there. As for the safety, well, I haven’t heard any horror stories from other backpackers. Good luck!

  2. Thailand transport made me angry! There was one taxi that agreed a price and then said he meant ‘per person’ when we got out, and most of the boats will charge way more than they should because they know you have no other option of getting back to the mainland. I much preferred Malaysia, where many people offered us lifts and then refused to take our money.

    • I know exactly what you mean. It might be even worse in Vietnam, a country that has embrace capitalism in a big way. It sux because it leaves you with a very negative lasting impression. And Thailand is supposed to be the land of smiles, not of greed! You’re right, Malaysia rocks. I never had any issues like this there.

  3. Hey Simon,
    Very interesting and informative piece of advice there.
    I’m planning on travelling round Asia and been advised to start in Thailand and work my way north to Laos. I’m female and travelling alone. Are there any areas you would advise against going in Thailand?

    • Hey Jules, thanks for the kind words! You should be sweet as travelling alone so long as you stick to busy areas at night and don’t walk home alone. If you visit Laos, remember to dress fairly conservatively – but even then Laotian men are likely to be intimidated by you rather than the other way around!

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