Whenever people ask me where the absolute cheapest places to go as a backpacker are, I’ve been giving the same answer for more than a decade now: India, Nepal, or Indonesia. Those also happen to be some of the cheapest places to live, but none of them make it easy for you to stay long-term. In general, unless you’re from there, have a work permit, or are married to a local, you’ll find it very hard to spend a long stretch of time in the country without doing visa runs. In the case of India and Nepal, you’ll also have to stay out a while too before coming back with a fresh visa to start over. If you’re a digital nomad though or you’re fine with taking off for a few months when the monsoon hits, the payoff is that you can live a good life for under $1,000 a month in any of the three. The dollar is quite strong right now against all three currencies as well.
There are some areas within these countries that are more costly than others, of course. Mumbai and Bangalore are quite costly by Indian standards and Bali is quite expensive by Indonesian standards. If you can venture beyond those, you’ll be much better off. For Indonesia, you’ll also have to factor in visa run expenses and for most people that means a flight to Singapore.
As Vietnam’s economy has grown and the middle class has expanded, more foreigners have moved in and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is now a major hub for digital nomads. It’s an easy place to start or run a business, with tech-savvy locals who speak English to hire and fast internet connections.
You can fly in today and be in a furnished short-term rental apartment tomorrow for $400 to $800 a month, including internet and a regular maid who will do your laundry too. In smaller cities you can find a whole family-sized house for that.
A lot of apartments don’t have kitchens because it’s so cheap to eat out. You can get a good street stall meal for a buck or two and a large beer or fresh-squeezed juice for a dollar too. The Vietnamese dong usually trades at around 20,000 to the dollar, but right now it’s at 21,276.
If you’re looking for the cheapest and easiest place to become a resident in Asia, Cambodia wins by a mile. You can buy a business visa that’s good for a year for $280 after arrival and you can get a new one easily (without leaving the country) when that one expires. And unlike in most other countries, here they don’t care if you work or start a business. As long as you don’t do anything to rub some official the wrong way, they’ll leave you alone. This is a rather libertarian country overall, with market forces guiding government decisions more than top-down planning. You can’t technically own land as a foreigner, but there are ways around that by setting up a corporation. You can easily buy a condo though or just rent.
A foreign hotel manager I interviewed in Siem Reap said, “I don’t know anyone paying more than $500 a month for an apartment or house.” If you go higher than that you’ll probably be sharing a huge place with a doorman and a pool. You’ll find some of the cheapest beach living prices in the world here as well. When I was doing research for my book, I found a whole slew of furnished houses for rent near Sihanoukville for $200 to $500 per month and one six-bedroom one for $600.
So what will it cost you to live in Cambodia? If you’re spending $1,500 to $2,000 here, you’re living large, like the elite. You could easily get by on half that amount and still live comfortably. Factor in flights to Bangkok though if you are going to need serious medical care. The hospitals aren’t exactly known for being world class.
I’m a bit reluctant to put Thailand in here this year because a bad visa situation has gotten even worse lately. This remains a very popular expat destination though for a variety of reasons. Prices are still relatively cheap, the food is terrific, and there’s a lot to see and do. Plus for many single men, the very liberal attitudes about sex are a big draw.
This is becoming a tougher and tougher place to live long-term, however, unless you’ve scored a work permit or are old enough to get a retirement visa. Otherwise you used to have to leave the country every two or three months and after doing that two or three times they wouldn’t let you back in anymore. Now it’s getting even more strict, so the days of unlimited visa runs are long gone. People keep coming though and there’s no deny that Thailand is a cheap place to live. Search “Chiang Mai $500 a month” and you’ll find all kinds of blog posts from people who have gotten by for that amount. That takes some frugal living, but $1,000 to $1,500 a month is easily doable while still eating well and having lots of fun, even in Bangkok or on Ko Samui island. Just be advised though you can’t just show up and start teaching English on a tourist visa. The good news is, they’re supposedly making it easier to get a work permit for this and it’ll be good for two years.
Other Places to Live in Asia
I also have detailed info on Malaysia in A Better Life for Half the Price and this is an easier place to get long-term residency than Thailand or Indonesia. If you’re of retirement age and are willing to buy property, you can get all kinds of incentives as well. There aren’t a whole lot of foreigners in Laos who aren’t working for some kind of NGO, but that’s another cheap option in the region if you’re drawn to there and are willing to put in the time and effort to get residency sorted out. Many older men looking for a young wife are drawn to thePhilippines, plus it’s a good place to set up a business that’s going to hire from the large English-speaking labor pool.