Backpacker’s Guide: From KL To Ho Chi Minh Under RM3,500

backpacking southeast asia

Last month, Malaysians were enthralled by an unusual sight – a group of European tourists took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to make a quick buck.

These kerbside panhandlers resorted to all sorts of methods, from begging to busking to selling caricatures, in the name of funding their travels. Heck, they even inspired a new pun – “begpacking”.

Some of them even resorted to cardboard signs explaining their plight.

“Hello! I’m traveller from Russia. I traveled 4th month in Asia. Now I must quickly go home! Buy my hand-made picture and you will help me go home,” read one sign.

Travelling is all about budgeting and how you use money – clearly this Russian was not doing a good job. But what if you wanted to backpack in the near future? It doesn’t always have to cost a bomb – if you know how to plan your travel budget carefully.

Well, we have got you sorted out. Here’s a 13-day itinerary that will get you from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam under RM3,500.

Hopefully, by the end of your trip, you’ll not morph into a begpacker:

Day 1: KL Sentral to Padang Besar

Mode of transport:KTMB ETS (train)
Fares:RM76 per adult
Duration:5 hours 30 minutes


Begin your journey by taking the first train at 7.35am to Padang Besar located at the Perlis-Thailand border. You’ll reach your destination by 12.30pm, so ensure you have snacks and sufficient water for the journey.

Money tips

  • Feel free to compare exchange rates at a number of booths but don’t waste time and money traipsing across town to save 10 baht.
  • Banks and booths typically give much better rates than hotels or other businesses.
  • Only exchange money at a licensed foreign exchange location. Though you may get a better rate on the street, the risk of being scammed or winding up with fraudulent notes is high.
  • Larger bills typically earn better rates at exchange booths but smaller bills on hand can be useful.
  • Always keep spare change, about a few hundred ringgit stashed away for an emergency.

Source: Travelfish.

Padang Besar to Hat Yai

Mode of transport:Local bus/minivan
Fares:RM6 (44 baht) to city centre

RM12 to Hat Yai train station
Duration:1 hour
Source: Travel-Penang-Malaysia


Your next destination is Hat Yai and to get there, you have two options: the local bus or minivan service.

The BTS Skytrain is one of the best ways to get round Bangkok.

If you decide to take the bus, the bus stop for this service is on your right on the far side of the road as you exit the Thai immigration centre. As for the mini vans, they are located opposite the bus stop.

These leave every 15 to 20 minutes and will take you to the Hat Yai Bus Terminal, which is about 2km from the train station.

To get to the terminal you will have to fork out about 100 baht or RM12. But if you want to crimp, you can do some legwork, but be prepared – it’s a 30-minute walk.

Hat Yai to Bangkok

There are two ways to reach the Thai capital. You can take an express bus which is roughly a 14-hour journey at RM90.27 (704 baht). But we will opt for the train instead and take a slightly more expensive package to Bangkok:

Mode of transport:Train 2nd Class Sleeper with A/C
Fares:RM153.28 inclusive of food
Duration:16 hours 10 mins
Source: Travel-Penang-Malaysia


To reach Bangkok the next morning, you need to board the train by 6pm local time. You’ll alight at the Hua Lamphong terminal in Bangkok at 10.10am.

To keep track of train schedules and even book tickets – which you are advised to do in advance – visit One of the perks about the train ride is that you’ll get to see stunning views of paddy fields and the Thai countryside in the morning.

Trains are known to be delayed. There’s no two ways round that, just bring along a book or some form of entertainment to kill time.

Days 2 and 3: Roam Bangkok

Here’s how much you’ll need for two days in Bangkok:

Transport:BTS Skytrain= RM48.10 (375 baht)
Lodging:A/C room for one person @ Cozy Bangkok Place for 2 nights = RM102.61
Food, recreational activities, shopping:RM200
Overall total spent:RM597.99


The BTS is your best bet around Bangkok simply because of its proximity to major tourism spots such as shopping malls, Chatuchak weekend market and the attractions on Sukhumvit Road.

Bangkok in two days

Here are some places you can head to with two days to spare:

Wat Arun. Locally known as Wat Chaeng, this is one of Bangkok’s most stunning temples. It is also next to Wat Pho, if you are into temples.

Khao San Road. Shopping and street food galore. Also has a few interesting nightlife spots.

Chatuchak Market. A must-visit among tourists. Basically, a place where you shop “till you drop”.

The Floating Markets. Damnoen Saduak is the largest and most popular of all floating markets, catering to mainly tourists, but it is still a must-see. Smaller markets such as Tha Kha and Ampawa offer more local flavours.

Ancient City Samut Prakan. Beautifully landscaped gardens mimicking the shape of Thailand with replicas of the country’s significant landmarks and monuments.


Day 4: Bangkok to Siem Reap

Pub Street, a backpacker’s haunt.

As the Cambodian rail system is in the process of being rebuilt, your cheapest option to get to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is by bus. Just note that the border crossing is hellish but that’s the price to pay for overland travel.

Also, you’ll need to wake up early and be at your pick-up point at Khao San road before 7.30am local time.

Mode of transport:Khao San Giant Ibis (express bus)
Fares:RM141.2 (1,100 baht) inclusive of food and snacks.
Duration:8 hours and 30 mins


The good part about this journey is that the bus is air-conditioned and provides free Wi-Fi, so you can stay connected and even do some homework on Siem Reap while you are on-the-go, which is actually not bad.

You’ll reach Siem Reap at roughly around 4.15pm local time.

Day 5 and 6: Traipsing Siem Reap

After reaching Cambodian soil, take the night off and check into your hostel. Then spend the next two days exploring what Siem Reap has to offer, especially its ancient temples which the place is reputed for.

Just note that in Cambodia – despite having a national currency, the riel – the US dollar is the preferred choice. ATMs dispense it; everyone accepts it. So, you’ll have to watch your spending here.

Transport:Moto (unmarked motorcycle taxi)/tuk tuk = RM110.26(US$25)
Lodging:Air-conditioned 4 mixed bed dorm @ Blue Lizard Hostel for 3 nights = RM79.39 (US$18)
Food, recreational activities, shopping:RM661.57 (US$150)
Overall total spent:RM992.42
Overall spent on the trip:RM1,590.41
Siem Reap in two days

Here are some places you can head to with two days to spare:

Angkor ruins. This is a sprawling World-Heritage-listed complex of more than 400 ancient temples with Angkor Wat as its focal point. Get there early and watch the sunrise.

Phnom Kulen. The birthplace of the Khmer Empire that endured for more than 600 years and covered modern-day Cambodia, Laos and chunks of Vietnam and Thailand.

Pub Street. A favourite backpacker haunt serving an array of food.

Angkor Night Market. A pleasant, clean, well-ordered and friendly market which also hosts two bars and a food court.

Tonle Sap. Cambodia’s “Great Lake” known for its floating villages, flooded forest and flocks of endangered water birds.

Source: Travelfish

Day 7: Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

Again, your mode of transport will be the express bus and you’ll have to be at the pick-up point at Pub Street by 7.45am if you want to make the most of your time at Phnom Penh.

Mode of transport:Siem Reap Giant Ibis (express bus)
Fares:RM66.30 (US$15) inclusive of food and snack
Duration:7 hours


This might be a long journey but it should be relatively comfortable as you’ll have air-conditioning, onboard Wi-Fi and food and snacks. You’ll reach the Cambodian capital at 2.45pm local time.

For Phnom Penh, as this is a backpacker’s trip, it will only be a two-night stay – have to factor in those US dollars.

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Day 8: Discovering Phnom Penh

Transport:Moto (unmarked motorcycle taxi)/tuk tuk = RM110.26(US$25)
Lodging:Double AC (Shared Bathroom) @ The Mad Monkey Phnom Penh for 2 nights = RM158.78 (US$36)
Food, recreational activities, shopping:RM450 (US$102.30)
Overall total spent:RM719.04
Overall spent on the trip:


Since you have only one day to explore the city, if you rested the night before, then you’ll just have to be picky.

Phnom Penh in one day

Only one day? Just pick any of these:

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Known as S-21, this former school was converted into an office designated for the detention, interrogation, torture and killing of prisoners (most of whom had done nothing wrong).

Choeung Ek Memorial (the Killing Field). A memorial site remembering the thousands of men, women and children tortured and executed under the Khmer Rouge.

Russian Market. A sprawling indoor market filled with souvenirs, fabrics, bags and pirated DVDs.

Phnom Penh Night Market. Located on the riverfront, the nigh bazaar is a favourite tourist haunt and sells mostly clothes and souvenirs. There are a number of food stalls near the back of the market.


Day 9: Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, the bustling Vietnamese capital rich in Western and Eastern heritage.

Get to the spot of the Phnom Penh Night Market at the Tonle Sap Riverfront and catch the 8am local time bus to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

This will be a six-hour journey but a comfortable one and will mark the last of your overland journey. Note, in Vietnam, the local currency is dong, so exchange money wisely and backpack away.

Mode of transport:Phnom Penh Giant Ibis (express bus)
Fares:RM79.36 (US$18) inclusive of snacks only
Duration:6 hours 30 mins


Again, the bus is complete with air-conditioning and onboard Wi-Fi.  You’ll reach HCMC at 2.30pm local time.

A famous backpacker spot is Bui Vien Street, and that’s where you’ll spend a few nights. It is also an ideal place to soak up local culture and cuisine. Since this is your last destination, rest up or explore the street.

Days 10 and 11: Pho up in Ho Chi Minh

From cheap street eats to salubrious haute cuisine to historical sites, Ho Chi Minh City has it all. Budget wisely and you might just enjoy your trip here:

Transport:GrabBike/GrabCar/taxi/bus/motor bike/xe om = RM50 (VND258,077)
Lodging:Single Bed in 8-Bed Mixed Dormitory Room with A/C @ Saigon Backpackers Hostel for 2 nights = RM70
Food, recreational activities, shopping:RM500
Overall total spent:RM699.36
Overall spent on the trip:RM3,008.81
Source: Vietnam Online


Ho Chi Minh City in two days

And here we go:

Cu Chi tunnels. Underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Ben Thanh Market. A famous tourist destination known for street food – this is the place to get your iced coffee with milk and herb-laden pho.

Bin Tay Market in Cholon. A great place for breakfast or coffee with the market’s street-food vendors. Also home to a great clock tower and a central courtyard with gardens.

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda. One of the city’s most beautiful and ornate temples in a riot of red, gold, green and yellow.

War Remnants Museum. Though a one-sided take to the US-Vietnam War, it’s a good place to understand the war from the Vietnamese perspective, especially the infamous My Lai Massacre.

Botanic Gardens. A remnant of French rule, these lush gardens are a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Source: Lonely Planet

Day 12: Ho Chi Minh to Kuala Lumpur

After 11 days of overland travel, let’s just fly home!

Mode of transport:Airport transfer = RM90

Low-cost airplane ticket = RM312

Duration:Est. 3 hours.

So, in total, it will cost you RM3410.81 to travel overland over three countries in 12 days!

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It’s all about planning

When the ringgit plummeted against the US dollar, many observers remarked that one of the things Malaysians would have to sacrifice are those fancy getaways.

True, you may not be able to travel to Europe for a month flying business class, but with some money-smarts, you could go on an adventure at an affordable price.

Remember to plan in advance and budget. If you need help on the latter, we just published an article on budgeting which is worth checking out.

Also, accept that given our current economic circumstances, it is all about trade-offs. If you want a cosy stay, you might have to shorten your trip. If you want an extensive trip, then travel might be bumpy.

However, economic circumstances shouldn’t dampen your spirits of having a little fun. Hey, at least you wouldn’t end up begging for that flight ticket home!

10 tips for backpacking around Southeast Asia

  1. Plan around the weather
  2. Get off the beaten track
  3. Try the street food
  4. Budget carefully – but have the odd splurge
  5. Learn from the locals
  6. Embrace the great outdoors
  7. Make time for temples
  8. Hit the beach
  9. Take local transport
  10. Stay safe and healthy

Source: Rough Guides

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