Mateo is an experienced budget traveller, but for me he is an old friend, from Hungary. I first met him while he was working as a rickshaw driver, getting around tourists in Budapest. On my way to the Canary Islands, he hosted me on his couch in Barcelona, he helped me get a job in one of the greatest hostels (RIP) in Budapest. We surely did parties together and still help each other even from thousands of miles away. He always had clear visions about his travels and has mastered how to live and travel well with very little. In this interview he shares his wisdom about traveling on a budget, skate parks around the world and gives insider travel tips about South-East Asia.
Tell us a bit about yourself, who are you, when did you start travelling and where did the idea come from?
Greetings people. Mateo here, from Hungary, in south Vietnam right now. I first left my tribe 10 years ago. I remember the day of arrival clearly; a stormy day in Holland with particularly warm winds for November. This journey was fueled by a disastrous teenage love that’s best be forgotten. However, the true origins of all the roaming around date back a bit earlier. Most definitely coming from the numerous family weekend and summer holiday trips all throughout the 90s.
I know you moved to Vietnam this year but you had visited or have lived in many other places in the world, would you sum up the highlights of your travels?
The stars aligned fairly well in 2014, by that time I visited most countries in Europe and it was high time to look further. Having lived in Spain during this period, it seemed the right decision to go to Latin America and polish my broken Spanish, besides a mysterious stranger called Dimitrij also suggested to do so…
I spent 4 months observing and interacting in Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. For the coming few years the pattern was similar: I was working in the EU for the most part of the year and was spending winters at more favorable climates, such as India, Albania, etc. Gradually, I lost interest in living and growing old in Europe. The final call was setting foot on South East Asian soil in 2018. Uh lala, here we go exotic permanently 😉 Point of no return as they say, or they don’t… Anyway, it was in Vietnam where I saw the best opportunities to embrace. Right now I got big plans here. Made the serious decision of taking up the daunting challenge of learn the Vietnamese language… Great efforts that pay back a hundredfold.
How would you define your travel style?
It’s freestyle baby and, mostly, solo until nowadays.
Rule #1: Never check Tripadvisor/Lonelyplanet and the rest. Google maps and Wikitravel are two old friends I can count on in many cases.
If anyone is a bit interested in geography and/or topography could just use common sense to find the most fascinating ‘hidden gems’ with little to no tourism. Zoom in on a map, step back, think, listen to intuition and go. Speaking of modes of transportation, hereby I shall point out a good way of saving money in India and Thailand (and I reckon the same applies to a bunch of other countries too in the developing world), is taking trains, unless the distance is too long. I avoid flying whenever possible, it’s better for the environment and for the wallet. I took a 6 hour ride for less than 2$ last year!
Rule 2: Travel with locals whenever possible! Can’t emphasize this enough it’s a very important advice to take for a budget traveller. On one occasion I joined my skater friend and his father on their journey to see some relatives for the first time and revisit the monastery where the father used to be a monk decades ago. Days of serene simplicity to remember forever.
How do you travel on a budget?
Comfort hasn’t been too important and taking risks hasn’t been a problem for me. Go to Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com and list accommodations with the lowest price first. Note; not to ever use CouchSurfing to cut on expenses!
In all the designated and gentrified areas I do a bit of asking around before starting spending madly. Next to main attractions, clubs , financial districts prices are the highest, in most cases walking away a few hundred meters offer the same product in its original form with a reasonable price tag. Also, I recommend you to never be shy about asking local friends for their advice.
I take public transportation whenever they provide nearly the same experience as tour companies. Here is a striking example: I was in South India, Kerala state, visiting rice fields in heavenly settings. There was an option to take a boathouse for around $100 per night, but instead, I took the local ferry ride for just $0.25! Apparently, they go more or less the same routes.
So unless it’s a special honeymoon getaway, you might enjoy to share a few hours with farmers and fishermen as fellow passengers on deck.
I always consider asking around on foot in the neighborhood or I translate the local real estate and buy and sell websites, what an average person would use to find a room or flat (in Vietnam is Chotot and Muaban). My advice is to bargain with dignity and never ever beg as a traveler, you not only represent yourself but on a larger scale your nation and fellow travelers. I eat local products and try to minimize guilty pleasures. If it’s needed, I go hardcore and write down every single expense I have had. It helps save money tremendously.
How do you earn money? And approximately how much money do you need to sustain your lifestyle?
If I work on a project, usually $400/month is comfortable enough. That means I would focus on work and travelling only occasionally. If I can make a little extra, let’s say $600-700/month is already plenty. Anything above that, I consider luxurious. I am teaching at ESL in South East Asia which provides great financial freedom, for sure. Still, I would only advise it to people who are very serious about it and who genuinely believe in what they’re doing will be beneficial to their students and colleagues.
You are now living in South-East Asia. Would you recommend a few places to visit, things to do, food to try for a budget traveller?
For budget travellers Malaysia is probably the best place to start within SEA (South-East Asia). Here you have a well-managed infrastructure and people speak good English. You can experience Chinese, Indian, Malay on the same street and scams are rare. The country is like a mini Asia, you can find everything. Breathtaking beaches, dense jungles, outstanding diving spots, incredible hawker food, all there. It’s a place where 1L petrol sets you back with $0.50 and a 0.33L beer comes at $2+!
I collected the top 10 places I’ve visited in SEA. These more obscure personal favorites, all of which are number one for their own reasons:
- Attapeu (Laos)
- Kaeng Krachan National Park (Thailand)
- Da Nang (Vietnam)
- Sabah state (Malaysia, Borneo side)
- Konh Kaen (Thailand)
- Da Lat (Vietnam)
- Georgetown (Malaysia)
- Battambang (Cambodia)
- Pu Luong (Vietnam)
- Phong Nha (Vietnam)
Since we all love top 10 lists why not include even two, right!? The best food I have tried without ranking. With 1-2 exceptions these cost around $2!
- Char Kway Teow (Penang)
- Bun Dau Mam Tom (Vietnam)
- Balut ( Philippines)
- My Quang Ech (Vietnam)
- Banh Xeo (Vietnam)
- Nasi Lemak (Malaysia)
- Thai BBQs ( Thailand…)
- Sarawak Laksa (Malaysia)
- Tom Yam soup (Thailand)
- Durian (everywhere, but the Bornean one has been the best so far)
As far as I know, you do skateboarding, what budget destinations would you recommend which have vibrant skateboarding scene and good spots?
The liveliest, most welcoming skate scenes so far have been Puyo (Ecuador), Skopje (Macedonia) and Bengaluru (India). I’ve had the amazing chance to go on a tour with the Holystoked family, those guys are so ambitious and inspiring. It’s a small collective of skaters who have a goal of building 100 skate parks all over India and educate children through skateboarding.
Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are blessed with so many top-shelf spots too, but local riders are a bit more indifferent. In Vietnam skateboarding is very young, yet there are some places even outside of major cities that have striving communities such as Da Lat and Da Nang. Cambodia has the Skateistan project going on for a while which provides a free indoor park and some lessons too.
I’m certain, every budget traveller has plenty of memorable moments which they would gladly tell again and again. Would you tell us an unforgettable travel story of yours?
A story… Well, first I thought of some cross-cultural relationship drama, but isn’t that a bit of a cliche? So, let’s head into musical adventures instead; Around 2008 I downloaded a strange exotic album, produced by Khana Rung Thawi,from my favorite blog.
There was very little information available about the artist at that time. While I listened to it plenty of times I never quite researched him. Years later I found myself in Thailand. And I remembered ‘Oh damn, that crazy-ass party groove turbofolk tune is indeed from here!’. That’s where I got the idea of finding the artist behind and so my quest began. As the album was released in 2000, initially, I didn’t have high hopes at all. I started to dig deep into the far corners of the web, sent out dozens of emails to anyone who seemed like possibly having a clue. With a fair bit of luck, I found the source region. After an overnight train ride I arrived to Khon Kaen and took a regional bus keeping my fingers crossed and appreciating rural Isaan’s scenic hinterlands.
Much to my delight, I didn’t only meet the musicians but we even jammed together a bit. Khan Rung Thawi displayed his delicate virtuosity over my simple basslines, played on a right-handed acoustic guitar as a left-handed…That was a moment I would have never ever dreamed of. That night I laid my head on the pillow as the happiest boy.
What message you want to share with our readers?
Whenever it’s possible, travel with a purpose and not as a way of escapism.
Don’t let traveling become a commodity only, if you realize how lucky it is to have such possibilities these days is reason enough to be fulfilled with gratitude. Know when to stop travelling. Don’t get me wrong here, we’re just as much curious about where the next journey may take us, at the same time, you probably wouldn’t want to end up as the stereotypical aging weirdo found in every second hostel. If you genuinely enjoy a certain part of the world, well, why not settle there? It’s an idea worth embracing. Working on becoming a part of a new community is noble. Learn the local language even if it takes 3 times the effort than mastering the last new language you did. If that’s your second language, then the better it is!
I believe the personal growth, what budget travelling gives, is not proportional to mileage. I mean, if you did open up your eyes, use them, better than trying to open them much wider. You already see the world in different colors. Be humble and respect others. Adopt to and welcome changes. The world owes us nothing, it is the greatest deal.
We started a new series of travel interviews “starring” budget travellers. Our goal is to share encouraging stories, knowledge, real life hints and tips and travel hacks from all kinds of people who have lived and traveled the world on a budget. You can read the first episode HERE. If you have a story to share or you know somebody with an interesting travel lifestyle, please, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Safe travels!