Surprising Money Sucks in Thailand

Last week I wrote about how much money I made teaching in Thailand and monthly break down of my expenses here.  Today, I want to call out some money sucks of living and traveling in Thailand.

Phad Thai
Cheap phad thai is not one them, beer can be…

While it’s incredibly affordable to live and travel here, I’ve still heard many people complain that they’re spending a lot of money and don’t think it’s as cheap as they’ve heard.

Mmkay.  Actually it is, but perhaps because it’s so affordable you’re spending more, since your money goes further and you don’t have to be as budget-conscious as in other places.

A couple examples – #1:  I’ve never spent money on massages or spa treatments in the U.S.  Here I will regularly go for a massage costing anywhere from about $6 – 8 for a two-hour Thai massage at a small shop, to $35 for a package (massage, facial, body scrub) at a nicer place.  (Of course, there’s also the really high end places that can charge into the hundreds, but are still more bang for your buck than at home.)  So, I’ve spent much more money here on spa trips than I ever did at home, yet got much more for the same amount than I would have at home.

#2: You’d probably be careful of your food expenses traveling through Europe, maybe saving that banana from breakfast or making sandwiches to last you for a few days.  Here, that really wouldn’t help you much when you can get a hot and and fresh meal for about $1 (I regularly post what you can buy for $1 on my Facebook Page).  If you can eat dinner for as little as $1, then that means more cash for booze!  And there goes your  money…

Chang Beer
Goodbye money, hello Chang-over…

There are things that quickly eat into your budget however.  Even if they’re relatively cheap compared to the prices you’re used to at home, once you think about how much you can actually stretch your dollar here, those things don’t seem like such a good deal anymore.  Keep in mind that $1 equals about 30 baht.

  • Snacks and soda – When you know a meal can be as little as $1, it’s hard to justify spending the same amount on soda (cans of Coke cost 14 – 15 baht, or about 50 cents), chips or sweets from 7-11.
  • Alcohol – It may be cheaper than home, but relatively speaking alcohol is actually pretty pricey here and can easily add up, especially depending on where you’re doing your drinking.  A large bottle of beer at the store is 45 – 55 baht, but prices can be jacked up to 120 baht or more.  Cocktails, even at decently-priced places start around 90 baht and quickly go up, particularly when you ask for a name brand or imported spirit.
  • Water – While I still use the tap water to brush my teeth and wash my dishes (I know it’s safe enough at my home and in the area where I live, but I wouldn’t do this everywhere), I never drink or cook with it.  That means I need to buy it bottled.  There are several ways to keep the cost, and amount of plastic waste, down, but the big one is to buy the largest container of water possible.  You can get 1.5 liter bottles everywhere, which is good, but it’s better if you purchase a 5 liter bottle then fill up smaller containers as needed.
  • Yoga – It’s not overly expensive, but it’s not cheap either.  Classes in Chiang Mai cost about $6 – 8 for 1.5 hours.  This is still a fine price, but it is definitely something to consider while figuring out your budget and what other things you can get for the same amount of money.  Many people take a mini-bus between Chiang Mai and the popular little mountain town of Pai.  The ticket for the three-hour journey is 150 baht, less than one yoga class.
  • Gyms – I spent more for a gym membership here than I did at home at about $40 a month.
  • Cheese and wine – Usually, I base my happiness level on how much cheese, wine (and chocolate) I’m able to consume.  Here I’ve had to change that measurement as cheese and wine is EXPENSIVE and usually not worth it.  The cheapest bottle of so-so wine I can find is around $12 and cheese is a luxury.  Sometimes, though, after living off of rice for a while it’s a splurge that just has to be made!
  • Tuk tuks – Tuks tuks are the most expensive form of local transportation and you never know if you’re going to get a good deal.  I love ’em, but taking a shared taxi, like the songthaews in Chiang Mai, or a regular taxi in Bangkok is more cost efficient.
  • Islands – I’m still always surprised by how much higher the cost of everything is down south.  The last time I went to an island I was sure, after being here for a while, that I had figured out of a few tricks to save money.  Nope.  For most things there was no choice to do it cheaper.
Longtail Boat on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Longtail Boat on Koh Phi Phi

In the end the cheap deals and options far outweigh that handful of things costing a bit extra, but it’s good to realize what has the potential of drying up your finances.  What have you found makes your money disappear when traveling through Thailand?

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31 Comments

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by cosmoHallitan

    “Usually, I base my happiness level on how much cheese, wine (and chocolate) I’m able to consume.”

    You’re a gal after my own heart! I have the same problem here in Shanghai – a bottle of Yellowtail that I could get for $6 at the grocery store back home costs about $18 in Shanghai. Same story for good cheese and chocolate. But sometimes I still have to have them!

    • Posted April 11, 2013
      by Alana

      I rarely, rarely had any bread.cheese/chocolate/wine for about the first year…then I couldn’t take it anymore.

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by Laura

    When I was living in Bangkok I must have spent 90% of my money on snacks and food. It’s just so hard to resist though, there’s cheap food pretty much everywhere and 10 or 20 baht don’t seem like a lot of money, but it sums up very quickly. Also I was living right above a 7/11, I was in that store at least once a day. And the Thai ice coffe (oliang) – I got so addicted! Oh I must stop thinking about food now. I’m eating like a morbidly obese man lately, ha.

    I love your blog btw, so happy I found it!

    • Posted April 11, 2013
      by Alana

      That’s the tricky thing about the food – it is cheap, but then you find yourself quickly getting into the habit of buying anything you want whenever you want and it adds up! I’m sure I’ve collectively spent as much on cha nom yen, or the sweetened Thai ice tea with milk as I have plates of street food… Thank you for the kind words :)

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by angela

    I was JUST thinking about how much I missed wine and cheese back home. It certainly is a luxury here!

    This is a great post. After being in Chiang Mai for a month, I’ve realized that I spend more than I had originally planned on a daily basis. Yes it’s cheap, but some things are still as expensive as back in the states, like bed sheets for cryin’ out loud! I regularly have to remind myself that although food is super cheap, other basic necessities are not, and to stay away from Tesco and Big C as much as possible!

    • Posted April 11, 2013
      by Alana

      You’re so right about the bedsheets! Strange… While I’ve now seen a couple places that are cheaper, when I was settling in I had no idea where to go except Tesco.

      On another note, I’ve heard Makro has the cheapest cheese…

      • Posted April 25, 2013
        by Angela

        Thanks for suggesting Makro. There will come one of those days where I will have to treat myself to to comething cheesy, like french onion soup :)… and I willl also take JBS’s suggestion to go to Sahara’s for wine.

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by Sarah Shaw

    Even though the cost of living is much higher in Korea, I agree with so many things on your list. I never go to spas in the US (would never pay that much for a massage and couldn’t give a shit about my nails) but the jjimjilbang in Korea are so worth going to. It costs about $6-$10 upon entrance, but you can use all the baths, saunas, etc. Body scrubs are about $15 and I’ve indulged in them on a number of occasions because they are, well, amazing. (Here’s a post about jjb if you’re interested: http://www.mappingwords.com/2011/12/27/naked-in-korea/

    Beer is pretty expensive in Korea too (although soju is $1 a bottle) and I also used to do yoga, which is a luxury here, as well. I’m not a crazy spender either, but like you pointed out, there are lots of ways to cut costs on a teacher’s budget and still do pretty much everything we want. We are really privileged in many ways.

    • Posted April 11, 2013
      by Alana

      The main trick is being aware of how far you can stretch your money – i.e, $1.50 for a full meal vs $1.50 for a coffee – and being aware of those choices.

      • Posted April 11, 2013
        by Sarah Shaw

        Yeah, in Korea coffee is ridiculously expensive– can be $3-$5 for an americano–and for $5 you can buy a decent meal at a restaurant. So, I usually make my coffee/tea at home.

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by Sarah Shaw

    P.S. I really want to eat the Pad Thai.

    • Posted April 11, 2013
      by Alana

      I always want to eat phad thai.

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by JBS

    About bottled water – there are water dispensers where you can fill up 1 litre of water for 1 baht.. (http://www.travelingange.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/IMG_4481.jpg) Handy if they’re nearby or at least a short motorbike journey away..
    I also found good good wine in CM at an Italian place called pizza e vino near chiang mai gate. If you talk nicely to the owner, she can fill up a bottle for you for 300 bhat

    • Posted April 12, 2013
      by Alana

      I’m going to have another post coming up with little tricks to cut corners/save money and the water dispensers is one of them! Thanks for all the wine recommendations :)

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by JBS

    sahara on Nimmanhaemin Road does pretty good cheapish wine

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by JBS

    ah one more recommendation! For falang food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, there’s a good sit down american style restaurant called “boat” on huay keaw road popular with Thai students, super cheap, they do thai food as well.

  • Posted April 11, 2013
    by Agness

    i couldn’t agree more. most of people think Thailand is super cheap and they live high life – dining out every day, drinking plenty of fruits shakes and cocktails, partying like crazy, buying t-shirt in the street and going for excursions. they do things they probably couldn’t afford in their own country. after a few weeks they come to a conclusion that thailand is expensive (!!??). i think it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. we lived there for $10 per day snacking around, walking, no tuk tuk rides and no massages. gyms are very expensive so we went jogging every morning instead and cooked in our hostel :-). people often get scammed and robbed when they are drunk after a full or half moon party :)))

    • Posted April 12, 2013
      by Alana

      So true, Agness!

  • Posted April 14, 2013
    by Greg Goodman

    Then there’s the 60+ baht coffees at Ristr8to and other places that us digital nomads spend our days. Just working on the computer away from home gets to be a bit expensive.

  • Posted April 14, 2013
    by Adam Pervez | HappinessPlunge.com

    Yes, what Greg said. When I visited Chiang Mai I paid quite a bit in coffee money as well :)

  • Posted April 15, 2013
    by Ash Clark

    Im with the boys, I blame CM for my coffee addiction…

  • Posted April 16, 2013
    by Jeff Dobbins

    This is really helpful information. Just returned from a trip during which, despite best budget efforts, money seems to drain from my wallet. Thailand is high on my list, so this is duly bookwarked.

    • Posted April 16, 2013
      by Alana

      Sometimes it seems like no matter what you do you can’t cut corners… I feel this way when I go down to the islands in Thailand. Everything is marked up and adds up so quickly with few alternative options.

  • Posted August 1, 2013
    by todd

    Being a guy from the U.S., I like to have western food once in a while, but it’s not as good and it actually costs a little more. I bought bottled water in the U.s., but I think it is more here. I came here because my income is limited at $1,666 USD. I felt that I could live most comfortably here (plus I met a wonderful Thai woman on line). I find that the food saves you money, but the beverages are the same or more. I am staying in the poorest part of Thailand, yes I save money, But not what they make you believe!

    • Posted August 1, 2013
      by Alana Morgan

      Very true about the food and drinks – since you can buy a plate of food for $1, why buy a can Coke for 50 cents?

  • Posted February 22, 2014
    by Chris

    Hi, well I have just got back from a 4 month spell in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, there are many different opinions on how you would describe “living well”. My living costs and experiences are below, I hope it’s helpful…..

    I live a simple life, eat street food, have a nice room in a small block in the city, with a balcony and air, tv, wet shower room, fridge, communal gardens, parking and it comes semi furnished. I get my washing done and have a motorbike that I hire, I go out 2 times a week for a drink and dance in the evenings, I eat out 3 times a day, I cook once or twice a week, while it’s a simple life it’s also very good and relaxing, I do what I want when I want, have a little extra for clothes or medical things and budget a little for the usual visa runs, so here’s what I spend.

    Rent per month 3700
    Bills elec and water 980
    Street food three times a day 11500 eating well inc drinks
    Going out 4000
    Motor bike rental and gas one month 3000
    Visa runs 3000
    Odds and ends 5000

    This equals approx 31000 bht a month. This equals approx 1000 bht a day £19 per day. Less than £600 a month. This is based on two people, me and my Laos girlfriend. We do have a great quality of life, so that’s my costs. Worth noting that if you want to go and travel, well for us to travel to Laos, 12 hrs on a bus then into Laos cost us 3000 bht return including visa fees, that’s under 60 pounds, 30 pounds each for a 3000km trip and boarder crossing.

  • Posted May 27, 2014
    by Lisa - Wee Wanders

    Really great post! I’ve read a few places that the north is a lot cheaper than the south which is good news for me.

    I don’t drink alcohol so I am hoping to splurge on some yoga classes in Chiang Mai…although my budget is still pretty tight!

    • Posted May 27, 2014
      by Alana Morgan

      Yes – just about everything is cheaper in the north and better food is more accessible too! I feel like on the islands foreigners get stuck eating only at places geared toward them…

  • Posted August 13, 2015
    by Kevin Conroy

    Never take a tuk tuk in either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. With air-con taxis at 35 baht a meter drop and motorcycle taxis so cheap they’re almost free, there is no sense putting up with all the haggling and they are no faster than a taxi.

    • Posted August 13, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      Well, taxis don’t really go anywhere in Chiang Mai except to the airport, so you either take a tuk tuk or songthaew…

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