Istanbul: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Istanbul today is as exciting as it was in 1987 when I first visited the city with my dad. Then, on a short 2-day tour, we saw the Grand Bazaar, strolled through Topkapı palace, had a scrumptious meal of İskender kebab and went on a scenic Bosphorus cruise. Twenty-six years later, visitors to Istanbul can still enjoy the very same things, only with one notable difference: cost!

Prices here have gone through the roof, and I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. Right now, Istanbul seems to be one of the hottest destinations in Europe, so why not charge $22 for a museum or $100 for a seafood meal? After all, visitor numbers are up. While luxury tourists feel right at home here, backpackers  probably won’t (any longer). Only 20 years ago, they paid $15 for a hotel right in the heart of Sultanahmet; in 2013, they will be hard-pressed to Continue…

Germany: What a Dollar Can Buy You

It’s funny how perspectives can change so quickly. Looking back at our previous What a Dollar Can Buy You posts in Asia, I remember that we were operating on a very different wavelength. I called Malaysia “downright expensive” and I whined that the Philippines could “break the bank.” Now that we’re back in Europe, I only wish we could do so much for so little money.

But I shouldn’t complain. Despite Germany’s economic success (at least that’s what Frau Merkel tells us), prices here are still relatively affordable by European standards. Many other EU countries are far more expensive. And bizarrely, Berlin is one of Germany’s most affordable destinations! Even 24 years after the fall of the wall, Deutschland’s capital is still cheaper than most other cities in the country (or the continent for that matter.) So basing ourselves in Berlin, where we can maximize our experiences while minimizing costs, makes total sense. After all, we are budgeteers at heart.

I have to admit it was a little more challenging to compile this list. Although one-dollar items or services do not abound, there are still some things you can get for 0.77 euro cents Continue…

Indonesia: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Indonesia used to be one of the cheapest places in Southeast Asia. But in recent years, prices in the large archipelago have caught up with those of other countries in the region. Especially areas such as Kalimantan, eastern Nusa Tenggara as well as Papua can be painfully expensive, with transportation and accommodation often being the main culprits.

I know, I must sound like a broken record. Haven’t I complained about rising costs in every other country? The fact is that prices in the developing world are shooting up at lightning speed which makes backpacking on a budget increasingly challenging. And Indonesia is the poster child for such change.

One interesting oddity is the price ratio between Coke and gasoline. Indonesia has the most expensive Coca Cola but the cheapest gas we have seen anywhere in Asia. You would think that the low gas prices would be reflected in transportation costs – but as I mentioned above, this is not always so. In addition to that, Tony’s Coke addiction has set us back quite a bit (as we all know, Coke is to Tony what gas is to a car).

Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable things to go around. Here’s what you can get for 9,000 rupiah or around a buck:

  • 1 load of laundry (about 3.5 kg)
  • 1 creamy avocado shake
  • 2 km taxi ride
  • 4 liters (1 gal.) of drinking water
  • 1 pre-cut pineapple on touristy Seminyak beach, Bali
  • 1 hour of Internet access
  • 1 vegetarian meal in a typical warung
  • 2 liters of gasoline
  • 0.5 liter of Coca Cola
  • 3 packs of local cigarettes
  • 1 mandatory donation to enter traditional Sasak village, Lombok
  • 7 Yakult probiotic yogurt drinks
  • 4 angkot rides (public minibus covering city routes)
  • 1 sleeping mat rental on overnight ferry

Singapore: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Singapore budget

It’s almost needless to say, but one dollar doesn’t buy you much in Southeast Asia’s most expensive country. The transition coming from neighboring Malaysia happens fast and is a shock to the penny-pinching system. Bigger and glitzier malls, cleaner streets, fancier clothes, and – most notable to us – much higher prices. As Tony mentioned in Singapore for Budgeteers, the city is for those with bucks to burn. Often, the same products and brands offered in Malaysia are more than twice as expensive here in Singapore. Ouch, that hurts.

Clearly, in order to enjoy the city, we had to put our budget on the backburner for a while. But Singapore is not completely a lost cause. There are still some items and services that can be had for 1.25 Singapore dollars or around a buck:

  • 1.5 liters of drinking water
  • 1 yam cake
  • 3.2 km in an air-con city bus
  • 3 apples
  • 1 can of coke
  • 2 stops by metro
  • 1 Mentos
  • 1 Chinese egg tart
  • 0.5 hours of parking in Chinatown
  • 1 barbequed chicken wing

Sadly, this might just be the complete list of 1-dollar-items in all of Singapore…

Oh well, it may not be the ultimate budget destination, but neither is Paris, Tokyo, London, Rome, or a host of other sensational cities. Just remember to pack a couple of extra credit cards. 🙂 For fun ideas of what to do in this fabulous city, check out our list of the 12 best things to do in Singapore.

On a completely “separate note”, keen observers might notice Singapore doesn’t have $1 bills, so why are there $1 notes in the photo above? Those are Brunei dollars which are accepted legal tender in Singapore as well. Unfortunately, shops run by many of Singapore’s guest workers are often unaware of that fact, which can make using the notes rather difficult in places such as Little India and Chinatown.

Malaysia: What a Dollar Can Buy You

In many ways, Malaysia reminds me of the Philippines. It’s a country torn between development and deterioration where one can find open sewers right next to super-mega malls, biological wastelands next to intact jungle, and sea gypsy settlements right next to high-end resorts. While much of the Malaysia experience is decidedly third-world, the prices don’t always reflect that. In fact, Malaysia can be downright expensive.

Dragon Fruit

Although some food options can be quite cheap in Malaysia, accommodation and transportation are more expensive than other parts of Southeast Asia. But the greatest shock to the wallet is the very high cost of activities here. Although most temples and mosques are usually free, other entry fees are often quite pricey. And experiencing Malaysia’s natural heritage (or what’s left of it) can border on extortionate.

Prices are especially high when leaving peninsular Malaysia and traveling through Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. There, fueled by the logging and palm oil industries, prices can get a little crazy leaving visitors scratching their heads in disbelief and seriously asking themselves whether the trip was worth it. Here a dirty dormitory bed can cost more than an air-conditioned hotel room with cable TV in Bangkok. Anyone up for a $1000 3-day camping trip? Yikes. Let’s just say with the money we put out in Sabah, we could’ve spent a month in Paris.

But not to worry. Malaysia is not a lost cause for the budget conscious. There are still a few affordable things to be had for three ringgit or about a buck:

  • 3 roti canai and a small plate of curry (great lunch)
  • 1 hour of Internet access
  • 2 cans of coke
  • 9 minutes on a Rest’n Go massage chair
  • 1 mango lassi (if you look very hard)
  • 1.5 visits to the “premier paid toilet” at Suria mall in KL
  • 4 liters (1 gal.) of drinking water
  • 3 ferry crossings from Butterworth to Georgetown
  • 6 vegetable samosas
  • 1.5 km in a taxi (after the initial flag-down rate)
  • 3 Granny Smith apples
  • 1/2 kg of clean laundry
  • 1 large dragon fruit
  • 300 g of steel chain (don’t ask)

Vietnam: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Vietnam would be a dirt-cheap country – if visitors could only pay the local prices. But more often than not, tourists are charged inflated rates for pretty much everything. With this in mind, we had to really kick it up a notch and work the Vietnamese with our superb bargaining skills.

And even with that, we stayed just within budget. I have to admit, we put out a lot more money on upgrades: a deluxe Halong Bay cruise, more polished hotels, and fancy sleeper trains. And our fabulous Food-Venture set us back a bit which, I’m ecstatic to say, was worth every dong. (Oh, dong jokes – we’ve heard them all.)

Overall, Vietnam is still very affordable and there are plenty of things you can get for 20,000 dong or about a buck:

  • 1 day of bicycle rental
  • 2 Vietnamese coffees with sweet condensed milk
  • 15 minutes of air time on a Mobifone sim card
  • 1 bowl of pho bo
  • 1 small load of laundry
  • 250 grams of candied ginger
  • 1 Chinese lantern made of bamboo and fabric
  • 40 quail eggs
  • 1 Vietnamese conical hat (non la)
  • 7 liters of drinking water
  • 2 tickets to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi
  • 2 chilled Halida beers
  • 1.25 liters of gasoline

Philippines: What a Dollar Can Buy You

There’s a reason why we haven’t encountered as many backpackers in the Philippines as we have in other parts of Asia. The island nation, caught between the developed and the developing world, can definitely break the bank especially if you want to engage in many of the activities the Philippines is so famous for: island hopping, caving, volcano trekking and, above all, scuba diving. If you want to have fun in the Philippines, you pay for it.

Generally, there are no super-great bargains to be had in the Philippines, and many other countries in Asia are a much better value for money, especially when it comes to accommodation. Having said that, we did find some special treats in the 2-3 dollar range. For this amount, you can see a movie, get a 1-hour massage or eat a Big Mac meal. But be warned, these little bargains add up quickly! If you happen to be on a tight budget, you had better stick to the $1 deals. And here’s what you can get for around a buck:

  • 45 kikiam (fried fish snacks)
  • 1 men’s hair cut
  • 9 lumpia (vegetable spring rolls)
  • 28 Marlboro cigarettes
  • 1 large freshly-brewed coffee at 7Eleven
  • 3 AA batteries
  • 2 fancy Halo Halo (shaved ice treat with cheese)
  • 2 hours of Internet access
  • 4 custard-filled donuts from Mr. Donut
  • 2 km taxi ride
  • 4 liters (1 gal.) of drinking water
  • 3 pounds of rice

Laos: What a Dollar Can Buy You

If you are planning your trip to Laos with the latest Lonely Planet guide book from 2007, you are in for a rude awakening. Rethink your budget! Prices have risen steeply in the last three years, and increases by 35 percent are not unusual – if you are lucky. Go to Luang Prabang’s historic temple district, and you may quickly run out of luck. Hotel prices there have doubled and often tripled. Go figure!

Beer Lao

More expensive than accommodation, however, was the cost of food. As in Cambodia, we spent about 40 percent of our monthly budget on food items, which translates to roughly $15 a day. Our lavish breakfasts with our friend Beverly probably had something to do with that. 😉 But not everything is bad news. You can still buy plenty of things for around a buck:

  • 1 ice-cold Beer Lao
  • 1 baguette sandwich with country-style pate, bacon and cheese
  • 1 entry stamp at the Lao border. No entry without a bribe.
  • 4 rolls of toilet paper
  • 2 mugs of brewed coffee or 2 bagels at the Scandinavian Bakery
  • 8 pictures of two different Akha women
  • 16 mid-sized bananas
  • 1 hour of Internet usage (1/2 hour in very touristy areas)
  • 3 liters (3/4 gal.) of water
  • 2 crossings over a foot bridge (I hate tourist tolls and the trolls that guard the bridges)

Lao Baguettes

Cambodia: What a Dollar Can Buy You

If you are traveling on a tight budget, Cambodia can be a challenge. Excursions, temples and monuments can eat up quite a chunk of money, but I wasn’t prepared to spend even more on food. Sure, if you live off of noodle soup and little snacks in street-side stalls, you can get by. But Tony and I like our Fish Amok and Cambodian beer.

Cambodian Kramas

Cambodian Kramas

We ended up spending almost 40 percent of our monthly budget on food, more than we spent on hotels. There definitely seems to be a trend. Food prices are rising quickly all over the world. Especially fruit can be shockingly expensive. It’s crazy to pay $1 for a mango at home, but it’s even crazier to spend that much in Southeast Asia. Luckily, that dollar can buy you plenty of other things. Check out what you can get for around a buck:

  • 2 glasses of draught Angkor beer during Happy Hour
  • 1 ginger-stuffed barbecued frog
  • 1 krama, traditional scarf worn around head
  • 3 fried tarantulas
  • 20 minutes of fish pedicure
  • 4 liters (1 gal.) of drinking water
  • 1 T-shirt at Angkor Wat (pay $1.50 for a slightly better quality)
  • 2 cans of Coca Cola
  • 1 kg of clean laundry
  • 2 dragon fruit or 50 grams of Danish blue cheese

Myanmar: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Coming to Myanmar, we were very uncertain about how much money we would need. Talks about black market exchange rates, high entrance fees and expensive transportation costs caused us to set our budget way too high. As it turns out, we’ve been spending about half, which is fantastic!

Tony in Yangon

To give you an idea about prices in Myanmar, we compiled a short list of things you may want or need.

Here’s what you can get in Myanmar for around a buck:

  • 1 glass of iced coffee
  • 4 packs of local cigarettes or 1/2 pack of Marlboros
  • 17 days worth of Doxycycline
  • 10 samosas (fried pastries filled with meat or vegetables)
  • 4 liters (1 gal) of drinking water
  • 1 can of Coca Cola or 1 liter of Myanmar Star Cola
  • 3 small sheets of gold leaf
  • 1 high-grade pomelo
  • 2 Bamar curry dishes including all the side dishes
  • 1 hour of Internet usage (tourist price) or 2.5 hours (local price)
  • 125 ml (4.2 oz) of Listerine

These prices are after the black market exchange. If you were to change your dollars in a bank, you’d be paying $170 for each of those items. Ouch!