Somewhere in western China there’s a bus driving down a long dirt road with an old, tattered journal wedged into the overhead storage. If someone were to find that book - perhaps under a dusty backpack they shoved between bags of rice - they would find page after page of figures meticulously added up. Beside each number they would find a scribbled note: “breakfast porridge,” “afternoon snack,” “two beers.”
I lost that journal twelve years ago, while Saskia and I followed the overland route from Li Jiang beside the Li River, up into the Himalayan foothills of Dali and beyond to Shangri-La. Saskia and I were in the first months of our year-long trip across Asia and we living on a serious budget.
Before we left the US - back when we first decided to travel - we made a pact: we would travel as long as our money and willpower held up. After selling whatever we could, we looked over the numbers of what we had and what we thought we could spend, and set a daily target. If we could live on $42 a day, we could travel for at least seven months.
Now $42 sounds like nothing - especially when you add in housing - but it’s surprising just how far you can stretch a dollar in Asia. Though it varies greatly from place to place, we found that $5-10 would cover a room (often with breakfast) and most meals could be had for even less. Maybe not the meals at the upscale tourist spots, but if you did a little walking and followed the local crowds, you could almost always find a delicious meal for a dollar or two. The same was true for drinks, and being the kind of guy who likes his beer, I wasn’t about to deprive myself of an afternoon draught. We found that in pretty much every country we visited - from China to Laos to Nepal - $1 was good for a big liter can of pilsner.
Holding to a budget, we found again and again, was about being patient and keeping track. When visiting the Forbidden City, know that a bottle of water will cost five to ten times what it would cost just a few blocks away. Though there are plenty of sparkling clean restaurants on the Ko San Road in Bangkok, taking another ten minutes to walk to the local eatery will keep your wallet full.
The old maxim “Time is Money” can be flipped on its head: if you don’t have the money what you can spend is time. And of course always remember to WRITE IT DOWN! We all lose track of small purchases and all those little dollars pile up fast.
Losing my journal in the storage compartment of that forgotten Chinese bus hit me in a surprising way. I hadn’t written many words, and there were no paragraphs between the figures. But there was a story nonetheless; an accounting of the time we spent and the daily life we had led on our journey to that point. It was in this way that our budget became our life, and in those tallied sums we could read the sum of our adventures.
I began a new journal after that bus ride, and recorded many more transactions large and small. My parting advice to any would-be traveller: never let the constraints of money hold you back. The best adventures arise from adversity and the best stories come from living on a budget and keeping track of every penny.