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Money Matters in South East Asia

Money is obviously important everywhere and anywhere, but especially when you’re moving from one place to another, and changing currencies. Here are a few things we discovered about money as we traveled.

Accessing Your Money

When we started traveling, we didn’t carry too much cash with us. Instead we had both applied for a 28 Degrees Mastercard credit card that, at the time, did not carry any international or ATM fees. We knew all major cities would have ATMs, (we later realised that even tiny towns in Laos had a bunch of machines!) so we would only take what we needed for the following two weeks or so. We did this incase we got mugged, if our bags were stolen or if someone decided to go through our bags on the night buses, or even in our room. Even though the credit card did not have fees (at the time) to take money out, sometimes there were fees attached to the local bank of the ATM.

We used wikitravel to determine which bank ATMs were free of charge, and would go out of our way to find one since we had all the time in the world! Some countries were harder to find a fee-free ATM, and while the one off transaction fees are usually about $5 AUD (in Thailand it was 180 baht), these do add up. We then decided to limit the fees by taking out the maximum amount from the ATM in one day, in Thailand this was 20,000 baht.

As of this year, our 28 Degrees Mastercard unfortunately started charging us about 3% on the amount we were withdrawing. This really adds up as it’s the ATM bank fee (180 baht) + the 3% of the 20,000 (600 baht). Yikes.

You do need to remember to pay off the card as soon as possible. Really easy nowadays with internet banking. A couple of times we forgot to do this, and we ended up having to pay interest on the month’s credit. Annoying as it was something so easy to do, and we unnecessarily lost some money.

Converting Your Money

Each country has their own currency, Thai Baht (THB), Vietnamese Dong (VND), Laotian Kip (LAK), Malaysian Riggit (MYR), and Singapore Dollars (SGD). Cambodia uses US Dollars (USD), but gives change back in Cambodian Riel (KHR). It’s always a good idea to have some crisp US dollars with you (in small change) in any of these countries as most places that deal with foreigners (embassy, border entries, high end restaurants) will accept this. You can generally go to a major bank or a money exchange to exchange that country’s currency to USD. Make sure you ask for new notes that look good. No torn bits, and no writing as these won’t be accepted!

A couple of times we either forgot or didn’t have the opportunity to get the next country’s currency before we got to the country. We either then paid in US dollars until we had the chance to get to an ATM, or we were given the opportunity to exchange currencies with the bus driver or his assistant! We found we didn’t lose too much when exchanging with the locals, as we needed to get rid of that currency, and we needed the new currency. The bus drivers also knew they could simply exchange that money on the journey back anyway and make another small commission!

Hiding Your Money

With so much cashola in our pockets, we had to find ways of hiding the moolah. One of the reasons we chose such tiny backpacks (all 25 Litres), was so that we could have the bag with us at all times. This meant on the long journey buses, we kept our bags with us in-between our legs, instead in the baggage compartment that could only be accessed outside of the bus (you never know who is climbing in and out of there during the night).

We also only kept what we needed in our wallets, so that we could easily access this, and hid the rest within rolled up clothes, in pockets, shoes etc. We didn’t want all of the money in our wallets because when you’re paying for something small, you don’t want to be showing that you have thousands of Thai baht, or hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong, easily accessed. There are unscrupulous people in every country, so our mindset was to never even give the wrong person the opportunity to think it was worth robbing us.

It also helps with negotiating (for food, transport etc.) when you show that you can only afford the amount you say you can, don’t say you only have 12,000 Laotian kip to your name when they can see you have 2,000,000 kip in your wallet!

However, don’t hide all of your money away. We saw a few people stuff their hands down their pants to access their sweaty ‘money belt’ when paying for street food. This is plainly obvious to anyone that your money is down your pants, and is really unnecessary. It’s also gross to suddenly hand this sweet old food vender a bunch of sweaty, stinky, cash from your sweaty, stinky crotch! Take what you need for a day or two and keep it in a normal wallet so that you can access it. This leads me to a side topic of Money Belts.

Money Belts

I used one in Europe backpacking five years ago. I was young, on my first real trip without my family, and responsible for my own passport, money, etc.

I hid everything in my money belt.

I wore it everyday.

And it showed.

Luckily it was the middle of winter so my bulge of money and documents was somewhat hidden by my bunk of thermal tops, jumpers, and a waterproof down jacket. It was ridiculous, and even in winter, i was sweating into that belt. It became disgusting, dirty, smelly, and really difficult to access under my eight layers of winter clothing! It was handy in some situations though, especially as there were a few times where my friend and I were surrounded by street kids begging for money, or ‘gypsies’ who hustled us trying to reach into our pockets and bags.

Most thieves are pretty clued up, and now know what to look for. Someone told us about getting mugged and being told to pull up their shirt. Yep, he was wearing a money belt.

We do have two money belts though, and we never wore it around our waists. This was initially due to the heat and our lack of clothing to hide it. It was usually stuffed down our backpacks under some dirty underwear (make it as unpleasant as possible for any would be thieves!). We also tried not to store our most important things in there, as it is quite obvious, and instead we would divide our money and store them separately, some in the money belt, some rolled up in a t-shirt, some in a towel. You just need to make sure you remember where you’ve kept everything!

Spending Your Money

We knew we were kinda traveling for an indefinite period of time (we had no jobs, no house, no furniture to return to) so we took it really easy with spending our money and sticking to a budget as we didn’t know how long it needed to last. We spent as little as we could, budget food options, budget accommodation options, taking the bus etc. But we also spent money when we needed to. Splurging a bit on a hike with an elephant in Cambodia, getting our PADI diving certification in Thailand, going on a three day hike in Laos, paying for an Easy Rider motorbike tour in Vietnam etc. It’s most likely that you’ll be in these countries or places once in your life, so don’t deprive yourself of adventures that you’re here to experience!


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