Since I started working in Saigon, I have been stashing a third of paycheck away each month to go on this trip, and as I sit here on super-zen-perfect-paradise-beach-land starting this entry, I can say without hesitation that it was 100% worth it.
I knew when I started working for my company that I would have the month of June off to travel. Most teachers take a week or two off for a trip or go home for a bit, but Ho Chi Minh City and I have a bit of a rocky relationship so I knew I wanted to get out and breathe in something other than motorbike exhaust for as long as I could.
People generally think Thailand when they think of Southeast Asia, and this has been at the top of my list due to its location in relation to where I live and how ridiculously affordable it is on an English teacher's salary. George was just as stoked, so we decided on Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, and Koh Tao.
If you get a chance to go, Thailand is an absolute utopia of the best kind of cheap eats, opulent temples, rich Buddhist history, and the immaculate natural beauty you see in all those cliche tropical vacation advertisement photos. The best part is that apart from the initial getting-there plane ticket, it's more than affordable. I did the full month on less than $2,000 USD, and that included all flights, buses, hostels, Airbnbs, bungalows, food, taxis, clothes, gifts, souvenirs, and a last minute doctor visit at the best private hospital in Bangkok (it's called Bumrungrad and I'd HIGHLY recommend it if you find yourself having a medical issue in Southeast Asia). I lived very comfortably and never felt nervous about running out of cash. The one big catch: I didn't drink... because I couldn't -- I got a nasty parasitic infection in Saigon and needed a 30-day round of antibiotics to get rid of it. Normally that wouldn't stop me, but the damn thing made me so sick that I didn't want to risk doing anything that would make the meds less effective.
How we did it
DISCLAIMER: We went during low season, so things were slightly cheaper.
We winged most of this trip. We had loose plans and booked all of our accommodation as we went using Hostelworld, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Agoda. We would usually books 2-3 nights at a place ahead of time, and if we liked it we'd extend, if not we'd find somewhere else. In Koh Tao we ended up finding our favorite place (Aow Leuk Grand Hill) just by coming across it while wandering. We stayed in a combination of hostel dorms, private rooms, guest houses, hotels, and bungalows depending on where we were and our agenda for the city. We were fine with hostels when passing through Bangkok on several occasions (roughly $8 a bed per night), but wanted more time in Chiang Mai and Koh Tao so we did guest houses and bungalows (we each spent around $10-$16 a night).
Getting around Thailand isn't a huge expense if your dates are flexible. In terms of flights, we used Skyscanner and looked at ticket prices for the full month and picked lower-priced days, which are usually Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and vice-versa hover around $18-$30. We took mini-buses to and from Pai (from Chiang Mai) which cost around $4 each way. We did a bus/ferry combo ticket through a company called Lomprayah to and from Koh Tao (from Bangkok) which cost $31 each way -- there are cheaper options, but they either take wayyyyy longer or have shit reviews.
The cost of food is the least of your worries -- the average price of a Thai dish like a curry is less than $3. Pad thai around $1.50. An expensive meal is around $5. A super expensive meal will be less than $12. I think my favorite part of Thailand was being able to eat whatever I wanted without having to worry about my budget because it made such a small dent.
Attractions and excursions
The price of excursions and day trips depends on what you do. If you do the full Grand Palace experience in Bangkok it'll cost ya about $13, and that will get you into the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Central Court of the Grand Palace. We took a cooking class in Chiang Mai for $23 which was worth every penny (we learned to make 6 different dishes). Seeing the Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep (the "temple on the mountain" in Chiang Mai everyone talks about) will run ya $6 for a round-trip songthaew bus up the mountain. In Pai we did a full day excursion that included a tour of Tham Lod cave, swimming in Sai Ngam hot spring, lunch, and visiting Mor Paeng waterfall for $12. We didn't do much in Koh Tao other than mega chill on beaches and rent a motorbike to explore ($6 a day), although most tourists who visit the island go diving, which is a bit of an expense ($60 per dive).
I bought a lot of stuff and things because Vietnam sucks for shopping (sorry, but quality isn't good and vendors are shady) and I wanted to send gifts home to my fam. The markets in Thailand were probably my favorite part of the trip (besides the beach) -- you can buy shirts and blouses for like $6, shoes for $8, handbags for $10 (I spent a bit more and got a nice leather one in Pai for $18). The MBK Shopping Center in Bangkok is a ridiculous haven of all sorts of goods (and anything cellphone related you could possibly think of) for cheeeeeap. I probably spent a quarter of my budget on goods, and I got a lot of stuff. So, if you're not going to go nuts shopping like I did, you can easily spend less than $2k.
I highly recommend getting the shit beat out of you (i.e. a Thai massage) -- hurts like a bitch, but you feel great afterward. Costs around $7-$12. I woke up one morning with horrendous neck pain and homegirl fixed me up (I want to recommend the place I went, but I can't find it listed anywhere). Also, I got a mani/pedi in Chiang Mai that cost like $12 -- really thorough.
There you have it. Seriously, screw upgrading your iPhone every new release and use your $$$ to go to Thailand instead. I mean, what's the POINT of having a retina flash if you can't even #selfie from a bungalow on Koh Tao while eating phat si-io, amiright?