Paradise on a Budget: Cheap Island Adventures in Thailand

In Food, Thailand

When I read travel blogs, I always want to know ‘how much do things actually cost?’. But usually its really hard to find out. So, if you are planning to travel to the islands in Southern Thailand, I hope this is useful.

Cheap Street Food Thailand Som Tam Sticky Rice Grilled Chicken Ko Lanta
Dinner for 2 for less than $5 (145 baht) – Sticky rice, Som Tam (green papaya salad), grilled chicken. Still the best meal i have had in Thailand

The islands of Krabi and Trang province are probably the most expensive destinations for travellers in Thailand – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still really cheap. Our aim wasn’t to live as cheaply as possible – it was to enjoy the islands as much as we could without spending too much money.

We spent 24 days island hopping, and I spent about AUS$40 a day. This includes everything once we touched down at Phuket airport, from accommodation and food and drinks, through to sunscreen , boat transfers and snorkelling trips (it also includes our flights to Bangkok once we finished). We spent 2 days at Phuket, 6 days on Ko Phi Phi, 13 days on Ko Lanta, 3 days on Ko Ngai (I think).

Map Andaman Sea Islands
Our Island Hopping Route

The fact that you can travel here on a small budget is quite amazing – the islands really make postcards look like crap. Its paradise (I keep using that word) if the kind that you weren’t convinced was real.

An air-conditioned bungalow with a private bathroom on a secluded palm-lined beach can set you back $25-30 a night. That’s about the same as a bunk bed in an Australian backpackers. Even flash resorts usually have a pretty cheap standard room tucked away behind the expensive ones. We used Agoda to book rooms a fair bit and found it very useful and a good to save money.

Island paradise – $40 a day

Most of the islands aren’t really targeted towards low-budget travel, and plus this is the kind of place where its easy to talk yourself into paying a little more. You can rent a old, smelly fan bungalow for $15 a night a 20 minute walk from the beach – or you can spend $25 and get a gorgeous bungalow with air-conditioning near the water. Wake up in the morning, and charge out of bed into the sea. We didn’t want to stay ‘out the back of paradise’, so we usually spent a bit more.

The remoteness of some beaches and islands means you are locked in to spending more money. A resort on an island surrounded by thick jungle means you have to eat at the resort restaurant. Still – the food is pretty good, and you can always get dinner for 150 baht ($5) or less.

Thai curry soup with seafood – $4.50 (140 baht) at a resort on Koh Phi Phi

Could we have travelled cheaper? Yep. But we didn’t want to – it wouldn’t have been worth it. If you want some island time for super-cheap – you can book rooms/bungalows/houses on larger islands like Ko Lanta for a month or longer, at super-cheap prices.

Eating cheaply : Banana pancakes, Som Tam, Noodle Soup, Grilled Chicken

Most of the food on the islands is found at generic tourist restaurants that line the beaches. Don’t get me wrong, they are often gorgeous places – but they all have the same MASSIVE menus offering average versions of western staples (burgers, pasta, pizza, sandwiches), and watered-down versions of thai classics.

When there was street food available (such as on Ko Lanta and Phuket), we alternated between eating at tourist restaurants on the beach (lunch here costs around $5 each) and getting food from street vendors (lunch here costs $1-2). Eating at restaurants is fun, but it gets tiresome when you have to eat three meals a day this way.

The islands don’t provide as many options when it comes to street food – but in an reasonably sized town there will be places serving delicious local food for a dollar or two. Out of town, you may have to walk along a major road for a while before finding a food vendor. On a remote island – you will have to get your food from the resort restaurant – so visit 711 or the supermarket before you go and stock up on crackers, biscuits and chocolate!

Our street food favourites:

Som Tam, Sticky Rice and Chicken (as seen above)

Our definite favourite amongst street food on the islands.  Sticky rice (also called sticky rice) is so good i can just eat it by itself.  It seems Asha’s all time favourite meal is sticky rice and tomato sauce.  But the perfect accompaniment for sticky rice is Som Tam, a salad of crunchy green-papaya, carrot, green beans, chillies, in an awesome sauce of smashed-up chillies, garlic, lime or lemon juice, palm sugar and fish sauce.  Traditionally it also comes with small dried shrimp, which are pretty pungent, and raw salted crab.

Som Tam and Sticky Rice

Som Tam can be the hottest dish you have ever eaten, so be sure when ordering to ask for “no chilli” or “no hot”.  You will still get a dish that is very spicy, but nowhere near the lip-numbing power that we experienced a couple of times.  Also – only the most adventurous westerners will like the raw salted crab and dried shrimp – but its worth giving it a try.  Crunching up raw, hard shelled crab with your teeth isn’t for everyone.

Any grilled meat goes well with this.  Grilled meat in Thailand is so tasty – marinated, then cooked over charcoal right on the street.  Its good to watch you dinner cooking next to your table.


Banana Pancakes with Nutella or Peanut Butter (40 Baht)

Kate Witcombe’s wise advice was to seek out delicious banana pancakes, and with street carts everywhere peddling the delicious desserts, it didn’t take us long.
Thin crispy pancakes, filled with banana and chocolate, and topped with condensed milk.  Or my personal favourite of banana and peanut butter.
A coronary-blocking good time.
Banana Pancakes Street Food Thailand
Sweaty men love banana pancakes
Chicken and sticky rice = lunch for 45 baht ($1.50)

Things on a stick

The official food of Thailand should really be things on a stick.  Street vendors everywhere are constantly cooking all many of things on skewers over hot charcoal.  Everything from the familiar (chicken and sausages), to the somewhat unusual (baby squid or chicken nuggets) to the bizarre (bugs and insects).


Cut up pineapple, watermelon, papaya and mango can be bought by the bagful in every town.  Cheap, healthy, fresh and satisfying.

Pork and Rice, with soup $1.50 (45 baht)

Noodle Soup / Rice with Pork

Plenty of places sell noodle soup with pork, or rice with pork accompanied by noodle soup for 45 baht ($1.50).  A filling lunch or dinner – and the stock used for the noodles and soup has usually flavour packed after bubbling away all day.

Some tips for travelling cheaply in the islands:

  • Slow travel. One thing that beefs up spending is the travel itself.
  • If you are travelling in high season (December – February), book ahead (we had some great experiences booking through Agoda). Otherwise you may find yourselves with limited options once you arrive, and be forced to paying more than you hoped.
  • As always, booze blows your budget out. Its very easy to spend more on alcohol than on food. We only had a few beers and cocktails every now and then. Buying beer, vodka and local Sang Som rum from Mini-marts or 711 is a good idea. Have a few drinks at home before heading to a bar on the beach.
  • Eat on the street – the food is better, faster and cheaper (fruit, banana pancakes, rice/noodles).
  • Scuba diving chews up a lot of money. Whereas an 8-hour snorkelling trip on a longtail boat to 6 or 7 islands around Ko Phi Phi cost us 1000 baht (about $30) each.
  • Don’t be afraid of the local travel agents. We thought just turning up at the ferry and buying tickets would be a lot cheaper – but often you can get to your destination for the same price, and they will organise a hotel transfer for you at either end.
  • Motorcycle hire is a luxury that you don’t really need.

If you are dreaming about snorkelling in warm, turquoise water in front of your bungalow for a month – you can afford it. Get going.



  1. Hi you two!
    We are enjoying your travel stories and tips. You must be well and truly bronzed by now. (Hope you’ve been slip slop slapping) Are you back in Bangkok now?

    I am on Harvey duty today. It is pouring rain and has been all night. Harvey is asleep. He seems to think Monday is catnap day and woke up after half an hour. I managed to get him off again but for how long is yet to be seen.
    Yesterday we had John’s cookup mates for lunch. The theme was St David’s Day which was March1 so we had Welsh food. We had Welsh rarebit, smoked eel and cockles for nibbles, leek vinegrette for entree, and John made a delicious lamb and vege stew called Cawl for main course. It was lovely and I have some today for lunch. Then we had a yummy bread pudding with stewed plums and meringue for dessert. Totally shot the diet to pieces! Those men really go to a lot of trouble to outdo each other.
    Saturday is Kate’s hens’ party. We are going to high tea in the Brisbane Arcade to play ladies.
    Have you replied to the invitation?
    Harvey calls! That was about 10 minutes!
    Have fun
    Lots of love,
    muom and John xxx

  2. Thank you for this post! I am going to Thailand in less than a month, and it is exactly the type of information I am looking for! 

  3. Hi Asha and Ryan,
    Thanks so much for this. Just wanted to know how you booked these island tours?

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