Last week, I left the lovely city of Chiang Mai, Thailand after living there for a grand total of three and a half months. As this is the longest time I had stayed in any one place for the past year, you’d think I would have managed to do and see a lot of things while I was there.
You’d really think that, wouldn’t you?
I actually thought that, too… until three and a half months rolled by and I realized the only sight I had managed to see the entire time I was there was the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. (Should you ever visit Chiang Mai, by the way, I strongly recommend you check out this museum. Mind you, the term “museum” is used loosely here; as is the term “natural wonders”. Unless I’m mistaken and the term includes surrealist paintings of naked ladies cradling mosquitoes the size of Golden Retrievers in their laps — which is pretty much a wonder in my book; just maybe not a natural one.)
So, yeah, I didn’t see much or do much while I was in Chiang Mai.
But I have an excuse.
You see, I was on a budget.
It pains me to say this.
Like physically pains me.
Budget is such an ugly word, don’t you think? Maybe if it sounded more glamorous and fun, I could get behind it. I wouldn’t mind “being on a glitteret” or “sticking to a budjaraoo.”
I feel frumpy just thinking that word.
Might as well just call it blah-get.
After being without a job for eleven months (you know, the kind that actually pays you in cash-money), I had to do a few things I don’t like to admit (or even say out loud). Budgeting was just one of them. Applying for a camp teaching position that would require me to wear a uniform and perform rap songs in front of three hundred Chinese elementary school children was another. (I didn’t get the job. Apparently my lack of enthusiasm for any job involving a uniform and screaming out modified versions of songs by Naughty By Nature is evident in my resume.)
Should you, too, need to watch your budjaroo (humor me, here) while traveling, I have compiled this fine list of tips for the most reluctant of frugalistas (Lordy. I can’t even believe I just used that word in a sentence. I know “frugalista” is supposed to make the word “frugal” sound fun, sexy and of potential Latin American origins, but it’s just not working. The Spanish language called; it would like Americans to stop using its suffixes for evil.)
1. Save Money, Settle Down
Staying in guesthouses, catching buses and trains everywhere and doing all kinds of fun touristy things like, ummm, leaving your room can get expensive!
The first step to cutting back on your travel expenses is to stop traveling.
I’m not saying you should do anything drastic like go home and find a job. (Please. That’s just crazy-talk!).
All you have to do is find a home! And, hey, it’s not as hard as it sounds. I did it, and I can barely manage to get myself out of bed before noon on a regular basis.
So how hard can it be?
Admittedly, Chiang Mai is a pretty easy place to settle down for a bit. Short-term apartment rentals are cheap and plentiful. I landed a furnished, studio apartment in the trendy Nimmanhaemin district after approximately two hours of hardcore apartment hunting. (Okay, maybe not that hardcore… a great portion of that time was spent sipping a smoothie and checking out the menu of the Mexican restaurant across the street — you know, it’s important to research the neighborhood!).
My rent, including furniture-rental, electricity and water, cost less than $200 a month. Compared to a guesthouse, which can easily cost $10 to $15 a night, this was a steal. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about any pesky housekeepers coming in to my room at the crack of dawn (err… anytime before noon) and waking me up just so they could clean my room. Instead, I got to sleep as late as I wanted in silence… and, admittedly, in squalor. (Hey, privacy has a price. And it’s paid for with dust bunnies.)
Once you have secured a place to live, you are officially no longer a tourist and, therefore, don’t have to feel inclined to do anything costly and remotely touristy.
After all, you live here!
Want to go to a museum? Ride an elephant? Take a cooking class? Go on a jungle trek? Pet a tiger? Plummet towards your death on a zip line?
Nope, you live here.
Want to go buy souvenirs at the night market?
Nope, you live here.
Want to leave your apartment?
Nope, you live here.
As you can imagine, you can save hundreds, possibly thousands, of baht each day simply by adopting the attitude of a shut-in… err, resident.
2. Feel Good for Free!
Boredom can make you do all kinds of crazy, pricey things – like weekend trips to Bangkok or night market shopping sprees or online poker.
In order to keep your spending in line, you’re going to need to keep yourself busy – but preferably a free kind of busy.
One great way to keep yourself off the streets (and off the online poker websites) is to volunteer your time.
While I was in Chiang Mai, I worked as a volunteer English teacher with an organization that assisted migrant workers. After my stint on the rice farm and the sailboat, I was happy to finally do a job I actually knew how to do – and one that didn’t put me into regular contact with snakes or sandpaper. Plus, the students were outgoing, eager and a pleasure to teach.
And I didn’t even have to pay a dime to do it!
Talk about win-win-win-win! (I added a couple extra wins in there to make up for the lack of snakes).
Maybe you’re like, “What do you mean, ‘didn’t have to pay a dime’ to volunteer? Isn’t volunteering supposed to be free? I mean, isn’t that the actual definition of volunteering: to offer your help willingly without any kind of payment?”
You’d really think, wouldn’t you?
In fact, I thought that, too, until I first started researching international volunteer opportunities a couple years ago before heading to Nepal to volunteer in an orphanage. It turns out that free volunteer opportunities are pretty hard to come by (unless you’re willing to weed rice paddies or sand sailboats – in that case, free is pretty easy to come by… but so are your chances of injury or death by snake-attack).
Feel-good volunteer opportunities, especially those offering you a chance to work with adorable orphans or some kind of endangered species, tend to cost money — lots and lots of money. The volunteer agency that I worked with in Nepal charged me about $600 for a month-long placement – and that was on the cheap end of the volunteering spectrum. Other agencies I researched charged well over $1,000 for a month. A sea turtle sanctuary in Malaysia that a friend told me about costs $300 a week, while a bear rescue shelter in Cambodia that I emailed charges volunteers over $400 a week.
The fee charged by volunteer agencies usually covers the cost of your room and board as well as administrative costs and, often, a donation to the institution. Sure, the money may be going to a good cause, but it can be pretty prohibitive for the budget traveler… especially if you haven’t really done a very good job of budgeting over the past eleven months. (And by “haven’t really done a very good job” I mean “blown money on hotel rooms that cost more than a new kidney.” So, yeah, you get the idea.)
Plus, to be honest, if I’m shelling out that much money to do work, I’d better go home with my very own sea turtle!
Luckily my Twitter pals from GotPassport were able to hook me up with my volunteering gig. (If you want your own free volunteering gig in Chiang Mai, you should definitely contact them or check out their website. And then you can send me all the money you would have spent on a pricey volunteer program as a way of thanking me for helping you out. Fair enough, right? I’d also like a sea turtle, please.)
3. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun… Frugally
Just because you’re being thrifty doesn’t mean you can’t afford a little bit of fun. Two of my favorite cheap night out activities in Chiang Mai cost me less than $10 a night.
The first was Thursday night Trivia Night at the U.N. Irish Pub. For a mere $3, your team can sign up to participate; with drinks and food costing extra.
As for that feeling of uselessness you get after not being able to answer a single question since you never really paid much attention to geography… or world history… or sports… or, umm, general knowledge?
That comes absolutely free!
My other favorite cheap night out activity was karaoke.
Having spent three years in Japan, I have experienced karaoke in its many glorious forms — including “costume-play” karaoke which resulted in my wearing a hot pink pleather cop uniform for five hours… only to realize later that the costume I was wearing was actually intended for men… and that pleather doesn’t really breathe so well.
And, here, just to give you an idea of what transpired that night, I give you this (you’re welcome):
I thought I had seen it all. (And, now, I’m pretty sure you probably think you’ve seen it all, too, right? I mean, you’ve seen me in pink pleather… how much worse could it get? Oh, just you wait!).
And then I started doing karaoke in Thailand.
The first karaoke place we visited featured videos of lingerie-clad women frolicking on the top of pool tables while suggestively stroking pool balls… all to the tune of Lee Anne Rimes’ “How Do I Live?”
This is the mental image I will now carry in my mind every time I hear that song. (And now, thanks to the wonders of digital photography, it’s an image you can carry in your mind. You’re welcome… again.)
My favorite karaoke place in Chiang Mai was the Bully Sing-a-Long in Kad Suan Kaew Mall. Not only did I not need to worry about having to watch indecent acts performed on pool tables, the Bully Sing-a-Long has the added bonus of themed rooms!
the Submarine Room…
the Jazz Room…
The, surprisingly tasteful, Erotic Room…
And the not-so-tasteful, Sexy Room. (Yes, those are framed panties on the wall… and, yes, you are welcome for that image, too.).
A night out at the Bully Sing-a-Long, complete with a few bottles of Chang beer and all the karaoke you can handle, usually cost each person in our party about $5.
As for the embarrassing photos of you pretending to be Lady Gaga that keep popping up on Facebook?
Those are all free! Absolutely free! (And, yes… you’re welcome.)
4. Eat More = Spend Less = GENIUS!
Is it me or does all this talk of scrimping make you feel hungry? (Seriously, people, why must all words related to being on a budget sound so… so… gross. Scrimping? Blech, right? That sounds like something shrimp fishermen have to do in the off-season.)
Luckily, being thrifty doesn’t mean you have to go hungry!
Chiang Mai is rife with day markets, night markets and cheap roadside restaurants that serve up whole meals for less than a dollar a plate. One of my favorite places for cheap meals was Chiang Mai Gate, where food stalls are set up nightly and you could get a plate of pad see ew, a watermelon smoothie and a heaping pile of hot donuts for less than two dollars.
Should you be really hungry (like maybe you haven’t eaten in five to eight days) and you want to really splurge on dinner (like a whole $10 or so), I recommend checking out one of the popular moo kata places in town. Literally “pork skillet,” moo kata is a kind of barbecue cooked on a dome-shaped metal pan over a pot of hot coals at your table.
Moo kata restaurants are roughly the same size of an airplane hangar and feature a rustic barn-like atmosphere.
The food is served buffet-style in large vats that occupy the center of the restaurant. On offer is everything from piles of gooey, uncooked meats…
…to piles of… umm… these things.
I’m usually not into cooking my own food – especially when I’m at a restaurant where I should be paying someone to cook my meal. (It’s kind of like paying to volunteer. I’m sure the money is going to a good cause — like to buy more of whatever those things are up there in that picture. But I still don’t want to do it.)
After a couple times at the moo kata restaurant, I started to enjoy cooking my meal — maybe it was the element of danger — what with that big huge pot of hot coals right there at my table. Or maybe it was all the beer I drank.
I had a good time.
And I ate way too much.
But I had an excuse.
I was on a budget.
You see, if you leave any portion of your meal unfinished at a moo kata restaurant, you have to pay for the uneaten food on your table. So it’s actually cost-effective to shovel every bit of food into your face.
Hey, maybe this budgeting thing isn’t so bad after all!