How to pick accommodation in Southeast Asia
It goes without saying that if you are travelling you have to stay somewhere. For us, the places we have stayed have hugely influenced our level of enjoyment of the town. So, the question is, what makes a place good and how do you find those places? The Lonely Planet and other similar guides give great options, however, we have found those places are either fully booked months in advanced, or they have significantly increased their prices since they were reviewed.
The debate has been raging with travellers we have met along the way… Do you book your accommodation prior or wing it and hope for the best? Truth is, most people wing it and we haven’t heard too many negative stories from people who do this. At the start of our trip we pre-booked everything for the following reasons;
- It gives you some direction of where to go when you arrive. Initially this was a major positive for us. We weren’t used to the heat, or carrying our packs and any troubles in finding a place to stay wouldn’t have ended well for us.
- The good places are usually taken early. Father’s Guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands was a great example of this. Rated highly on TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet, we saw at least 15 groups turned away in the first night alone.
- You can check out the online reviews before you get there. TripAdvisor is great, you know about bed bugs, thin walls and bathroom conditions before you arrive.
- You know what it will cost before you get there.
We continued to prebook throughout Thailand and it wasn’t until Laos I relaxed into the routine of hunting for a decent place when we arrived. If I’m honest, this was mainly because most places in Laos didn’t have an online booking system and those that did were much more expensive. Since then, we’ve hardly looked back and only pre-booked for Christmas and New Years. The positives of finding a place on arrival:
- You can negotiate the price. Initially we were reluctant to barter for accommodation, but now we easily get at least a couple of dollars off the original price each night.
- You get to check the room before you book. Rooms with horrendous bathroom arrangements and beds so hard it seems they are made of bricks can be easily passed over.
- It allows you to get a bit of a feel for the area, avoid the main party areas (or seek them out if that’s what your looking for) and settle into a location you are happy with.
There are always going to be negatives regardless of what you are looking at. In this case, the positives of pre-booking are the negatives of trying your luck on arrival and vice-versa. It really is up to each person and what they feel comfortable with. A few other tips and tricks for you though:
- Instead of flat out bartering, we have two strategies that have a high success rate. Firstly, I will say something “sorry, I like the room but our budget is … and my partner is really strict” while Jimmy waits outside. Each time they have dropped the price to meet out budget. Secondly, Jimmy will say in a loud whisper “it’s too expensive, the last place was better” while we are looking at the room. The price is quick to drop with that sentence too.
- Use the Maps.me app to find the main accommodation area. They have little icons with beds on them that pop up when you zoom in enough. Usually a few with have ‘hostel’ or ‘guesthouse’ in the heading which gives a fair indication your in the right place.
- Be prepared to pay more in capital cities.
- Know what local festivals and holidays are on while you travel. Accommodation will be more expensive and harder to find during these times.
- The bathroom set-ups are usually pretty terrible. Showers over the toilet, showerheads at chest height and hot water that lasts less than five minutes is pretty standard. Be prepared for a wet bathroom floor and to dry the toilet seat after a shower.
- Expect to pay cash in most places. Vietnam was the only country willing to take card payments.
- If a hostel is above a bar and gives away free drinks when you check in, it is fair to assume it will have a good party and be noisy. This can be seen as a positive or negative depending on what you are looking for.
- If you are travelling as a couple or in a group, sometimes it’s easier for one person to look after the bags at the café while the other tries to find somewhere to stay. This worked really well for us, especially when it was hot.
- If your hot, bothered and/or tired, sometimes settling for something a bit more expensive is worthwhile so you can take a moment to relax. Once you’ve had the opportunity to freshen up, head back out and try to find something better. A clear head makes all the difference and you can always move after one night.
The last hurdle in finding a place is knowing how much is reasonable. For us, our main objectives were a private room with a bathroom for as little as possible. We had a few places with shared bathrooms that were tolerable, but also a few that were so gross you felt dirtier after a shower than before. So, if you look at accommodation country by country…
- Malaysia: Expect to pay RM50 for a private room with a shared bathroom (each of these shared bathrooms were pretty clean and tidy). Most of the time this included breakfast and we always stayed close to the centre. Kuala Lumpur was much more expensive as a lot of the more reasonable places had been booked well in advance.
- Thailand: On average we paid 500B for a private room with a bathroom. This increases significantly in the peak period (December – January). We spoke to a local in Pai who told us prices quadruple in late December and early January, which is when all the Thai people have holidays. Again, we payed huge amounts for our accommodation in Bangkok. This was partly because Jimmy was quite sick and needed a few days rest in somewhere a bit nicer.
- Laos: We had a budget of 120,000K for a private room with a bathroom. We were able to stick to this in Vientiane and Luang Prabang that was great. Often we paid less, around 80,000K in the smaller towns.
- Cambodia: We found accommodation really expensive here in comparison. Be prepared to pay $20 USD per night for a private room with a bathroom. A lot of the places we stayed in were a bit dodgy and not worth what we were paying.
- Vietnam: After Cambodia, we were pleased to find accommodation in Vietnam was nearly half the price and twice as nice! Expect to pay $10 – $15 USD for a private room with a bathroom, often with breakfast included. We paid slightly more in Hanoi over the Lunar New Year period, which is understandable.
Everything aside, accommodation in Southeast Asia is pretty reasonable and you shouldn’t have any troubles finding a decent place to stay. Patience is key and make sure you have realistic expectations for what you will be getting for your budget.