I have many thoughts on this topic, and specifically, it depends on which country you’d like to visit. For this post, I’m going to cater it to Thailand, but also give some general advice about what I’ve learned so far.
The first question is always about money: How much will I need?
If you are a westerner and want to travel to Asia, your biggest expense will be airfare. Some websites I have used to begin my search are: www.sidestep.com. I have also used travelnetwork.com and farecompare.com. It’s important to consider several things when you are booking.
1) How long, and where, is your layover? If you are traveling on the cheap, you’re bound to have a pretty hefty layover. Do your research on the airport and make sure it’s somewhere safe and respectable. Many airports have little mattresses set up for travelers with space to stow your goods directly underneath. If the layover’s long enough, consider getting a cheap room for the night so you can arrive at your destination with all brain cells fully functioning.
2) What time of day do you arrive? If it’s too early, getting transportation from the airport can be difficult and pricey. If it’s late, depending on your destination, it can be dangerous. I like to make sure I always arrive in daylight.
3) Many times, tickets will be cheaper on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Make sure you do a search with, “my dates are flexible,” so you can see how the rate varies.
How much money should I bring?
Outside of airfare, I believe you can comfortably travel for one month in Thailand on about $750 US dollars. This is an estimate, and it’s always good to have a little more for wiggle room. It also depends on whether you are volunteering, where you are staying, and how often you like to treat yourself…
General Budgeting While You are in Asia:
The most expensive thing is getting here. In Thailand, a budget meal will cost you between $1 and $3, depending on whether you chose a street vendor or a sit down restaurant. Our favorite right now? Chiang Mai noodle soup. From a street vendor, this costs 30 baht (about $1) and is the homemade, Thai version of America’s Ramen noodles.
Lodging, which I will go into more details about in a moment, costs anywhere between $3 and $5 a night. This depends on what part of Thailand you are in, and whether you are traveling alone or with friends.
Souvenirs and clothing are all best purchased at local markets. For clothing, many vendors will start a price at around 300 baht (about $10). A little hesitation on your part and some bargaining can bring them down to 200 baht, or less. You can also find silk ties ($5), belts, mango wood bowls, scarves, jewelry, and all manner of other things. If the price isn’t marked on the item you’re looking at, that’s an open invitation to bargain!
Did you go through a program?
No, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Program’s are pricey, and until you get to a country, you really have no idea what you are paying for. My first trip abroad, I went to Ireland. We paid a company to get us work visas, and to help us find jobs when we got there. We paid a hefty price and got very little out of the deal. Their idea of helping you find a job was to direct your gaze to a bulletin board where the latest want-ads were tacked up. I also met a woman who went through a volunteer program in Costa Rica that she paid far too much for, and helped her very little.
If you are interested in volunteer programs, I would recommend booking your ticket first, and then finding lodging in whatever city you’d like to volunteer in. If it’s northern Thailand, think about staying in Chiang Mai, Pai, or Chiang Rai. Then look for guesthouses and hostels there. Expect to spend around 1 week touring the city and asking around. I am currently couch surfing in Chiang Mai, and our hosts also run a tour guide company and volunteer organization. If you are interested in volunteering here’s a place to start: http://travelwithjoethailand.com/en/
I know that just arriving in a country without a specific game plan sounds frightening. Honestly, I feel it’s the best way to do it, unless a friend has recommended a program to you from experience. It’s important to become acquainted with the country and the cities first, to see where you’d like to be. Also, you want to meet the people you might be volunteering for and learn about the program in person. Things in foreign countries very rarely happen according to what you expect (or with what’s logical…) Chances are you won’t be disappointed if you save the money you might have spent on a volunteer program and spend time getting acquainted with a place first. Most decent, budget guesthouses in Thailand run about $4 a night.
Are you staying in hostels?
I haven’t stayed in any hostels in Thailand. Guesthouse lodging is just as cheap here. Most often, I consult my Lonely Planet guidebook and then cross reference with the internet. I have not been booking lodging in advance. When I arrive in a new town or city (by daylight). I walk around a bit. Often there will be hotel and guesthouse managers at the bus or train station, who will try to convince you to go to their establishment. A lot of times, it’s a good deal. Word of mouth works wonders: ask the people you meet where they are staying and where they have been. Chances are they have good recommendations.
I also use WWOOFing (http://www.wwoof.org) and Couch Surfing (http://www.couchsurfing.org). If you are staying in Thailand (or any country) one month or longer, I recommend the WWOOF program. WWOOF gives you the opportunity to get acquainted with a country in a way few other things do. You learn about people’s livelihoods, the countries crops and exports, and local culture in a unique way. You meet and interact directly with locals, and the other volunteers are most often wonderful people and great fun to work alongside. One farm in southern Thailand to take a look at if you are interested is Daruma Eco-Farm.
I would also recommend Couch Surfing. This is my first time using it, but I have met many people who give great reviews of their experiences. The program essentially has people opening their homes to you, so use it wisely and respect their generosity. Also, be careful! Read the entire profile of whomever you wish to surf with. Read their reviews from other surfers. If you meet someone and get a bad feeling about it, opt out! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. I would recommend surfing with a friend, but I know folks who have done it solo. Generally good edicate dictates that you give at least a weeks notice before you will arrive. If your plans change, that’s fine, but make sure you tell your host!
Most of all, keep an open mind and heart. Go with your gut on decisions. Remember, anyone can do it!
More questions? Feel free to post here, FB or e-mail me!