Can you still enjoy five-star treatment at two-star prices in Southeast Asia? I traveled to Thailand and Vietnam to verify this old myth.
The Washington Post – Western travelers often repeat a phrase about Southeast Asia: “Flights are expensive, but once you get there, everything is cheap.” You can find “White Lotus” luxury for Holiday Inn prices, they say Taste.
When I moved to Bangkok in 2014, I quickly realized that was not the whole story, as evidenced by my dwindling savings account.
Yes, you can get street food for $1 and a massage for less than $10. You can also spend money on meals and travel just like anywhere else.
But Southeast Asia’s reputation for “best prices” isn’t necessarily a myth, especially when compared to other popular destinations. According to hotel data and analytics firm STR, the average nightly rate for a Bangkok hotel was $126 in January, down from $151 in London, $391 in Hawaii and $145 in Tokyo.
Unlike elsewhere, “you can get really, really good stuff for $100 a night in most parts of Thailand,” says furniture designer Robert Sukrachand, who splits his time between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and New York.
A number of factors have contributed to lower prices in the region, such as the strength of the dollar, labor costs, and the lower cost of living in much of Southeast Asia compared to the United States. As with many other tourist-heavy destinations, what’s a bargain for Western tourists may be out of reach for many locals.
To find a deal, Sukrachand says, you have to do some research on local favorites and price norms. Having an item cost baseline in hand can help you get the most value from your travels.Finding lower prices often means staying off the popular tourist routes of Phnom Penh or Penang and skipping the closest tuk-tuk
If you want to save money on hotels, look for boutique hotels
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I paid $185 a night for a Murphy bed in a hotel room off the Strip. A month ago, I paid $134 to stay at a motel off a freeway in Iowa. For $10 less than Iowa rates, I bought a suite at Bangkok’s Siamotif Boutique Hotel with a living room and two balconies overlooking the canal.
I took the advice of Katie Carew, a luxury travel consultant with Travel Edge Network, who told me that local brands offer better deals than international brands. I ended up at Siamotif, a traditional Thai wooden house with seven rooms, each with its own name and unique design. It’s technically a 3-star hotel, but has an “Excellent” rating on Booking.com. Every morning, my free breakfast was made from scratch; Thai omelette with red curry and chicken one day, nam prik ong with rice and vegetables the next day.
When it comes to hotels in Bangkok, it’s a buyer’s market. Analysis by Thailand’s Krungsri Bank shows that the country has an oversupply of tourist accommodation, while the hotel sector continues to expand.
I could have found a cheaper hotel, even one in a trendy high rise downtown or with a great view. More expensive options can be found closer to tourist hotspots, just as prices go up the closer you get to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Waikiki Beach, or opt for international brands.
“Whether you’re in New York, Switzerland or Vietnam, the prices of the highest-class hotels are pretty much the same everywhere in the world,” Carew said.
In Vietnam, I wanted to splurge between overnight trains from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I can pamper myself at the Vedanā Lagoon Resort & Spa near Da Nang, where overwater villas cost just over $200 a night. Instead of pretending to be on my honeymoon, I went to their sister property, Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa in Hue.
When I checked in, the staff gave me a tapioca and banana dessert, a cup of ginger tea and a chilled hand towel. My “Deluxe Double Room” — a short walk from the pool and poolside bar — was priced at $96, which included a breakfast buffet, morning tai chi and yoga, and a 30-minute spa voucher.
I did get bothered by some of the local hotels’ misleading photos and descriptions. In Phuket, my $76-a-night “boutique hotel” turned out to be a damp concrete cube with hard beds — and not in a chic minimalist style.In Hanoi, my $30 hotel “superior room” had no windows and was so small it could barely be opened
Door. Khoa Nguyen, who co-owns Vietnam tour company In Country Tours with his wife Michelle, said luxury hotels have fared better than others since the outbreak. “Many two-, three- and four-star hotels are not up to par,” Ruan said. “Five-star hotels are more reliable.”
Seek self-care where the locals go
Wellness is a cornerstone of tourism in Southeast Asia, but it’s not just for tourists. “Massage is not really a luxury in Thailand,” Sukrachand said. “People all over the country, even in rural areas, have incorporated this idea into their culture.”
I’ve had afternoon massages in Bangkok and Phuket to help with jet lag and recovery from a long day of walking. Instead of going to the luxury hotels that were priced close to what I found back home in DC, I opted for smaller places that catered to both locals and tourists. I paid $5 for a 30-minute foot massage, $8 for an hour, and $55 for a body oil massage in a private room at a more upscale spa.
The farther you are from the tourist area, the better the price. I got a manicure and pedicure for $18 at a market between a university and a hospital and it was so perfect I had to leave a review.
In Vietnam, after eating out in the humid city and sweating on the back of my motorcycle, I needed a different type of spa. To deal with my acne breakouts, I googled Hanoi for “medical spas” and found same-day dermatologist appointments. I paid $21 for a doctor’s consultation and an hour-long treatment with nurses who steamed my face, massaged, did some pore-lifting, put on a thick sticky peel-off mask, and finished with LED light therapy.
World Class Dining at Moderate Prices
I arrived in Vietnam ready to eat, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Dan Dao, a Vietnamese-American writer based there, notes that the only Vietnamese restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list is in the city.
That restaurant is Anan, whose $100 10-course tasting menu is a fraction of the $425 10-course tasting menu at SingleThread Farm, another California 50-best restaurant.
Nevertheless, I opted for the a la carte menu. My total of $47 for a soda, three courses, tax and service was by far the most expensive meal of my trip. I had a $2 banh mi lunch the next day to offset that. While high-end restaurants cater to wealthy locals, international tourists and expats, Vietnam’s street food and mom-and-pop restaurants cater to everyone, even those who can afford better restaurants, Dao said. You’ll find the city’s wealthy eating out at cheap places, “because the quality of the dishes is the best,” he said.
Like in the U.S., there is a perception in Vietnam that certain Asian foods, such as street food, should be cheap, which can limit options for business owners, Dao said. But in Vietnam, when businesses can operate from home or without brick-and-mortar stores, it’s easier to lower prices, and “the cost of goods is lower,” Dao said.
The exquisite tasting menu at the one-Michelin-star Nahm runs between $75 and $93; a few years ago, my mom and I saved the bill by going for an à la carte lunch. At a seaside restaurant in Phuket, I paid $22 for a wonderful plate of fried clams in a sweet and spicy sauce, a huge yellow curry crab, rice and a drink. At the Thai restaurant across from my apartment in Washington, curries start at $16.
Private tours aren’t just for wealthy tourists
In Thailand, Sukrachand told me, “some of the best food is some of the cheapest, but…you can’t necessarily find it without someone to show you around”. This is a great reminder to book some food tours while traveling. I took a group tour of Hanoi for $25 and ate delicious food at seven places I couldn’t find on my own. I booked a half day private tour of Hue with Nguyen’s In Country Tours for $65. The extra $40 made the experience feel above my pay grade.
When the rich travel, they don’t travel with the masses. They get personal—private villas, private guides, and private jets. Ordinary tourists can get a taste of this in Southeast Asia. My Bangkok hotel offers a $17 private airport pick-up service, and the driver will wait at the terminal with a sign with your name on it and cold water in the car. I paid $23 for a private Muay Thai lesson in Phuket. My private tour in Hue cost $65, including transportation to and from the hotel, and meals at Anthony Bourdain’s. I don’t feel like a tourist; I feel like a celebrity with a regular.
All of these cost more than the lowest-priced options, but paying a little more goes a long way. — Natalie B. Compton