Eighteen episodes, hundreds of street food dishes, dozens of new friends, a few romances, a couple of bouts with food poisoning, and countless beers. After nearly five months of full-time traveling and filming, I’m taking a break from Traveling for 20 Dollars a Day. It’s been the best time of my life filming this series, but my batteries need a recharge.
The Full Story of Traveling for 20 Dollars a Day
I first want to say that my good friend Curtis helped me film eight of the 18 episodes. His help gave me the momentum I needed to film the other ten episodes by myself, so I owe him a huge thank-you.
Filming by myself, it takes twice as long to complete all the shots I want. Plus, have you ever set up a camera in a public place and talked really passionately into it while nearby people watch you? It’s awkward.
I don’t usually write these sorts of blog posts because I don’t enjoy reading them. “I did this, I did that, blah blah blah.” Who cares? If you don’t wanna read this entire story, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t read it if I were you. Just skim through and glance at the photos. I won’t be mad.
Back in April 2016, I had this idea that I wanted to use the money I’d saved to film an original YouTube series about traveling in different cities all over Asia, and the best idea I could come up with was Traveling for 20 Dollars a Day. Since I was living in Shanghai at the time, I figured it would be easy to film the first episode of the series in Shanghai, making it as touristy as possible despite my two years of having already lived there.
Within a week, the video went viral on Chinese social media. Online news publications even wrote stories about the video going viral. The publications include Nextshark, The Jakarta Post, China Daily, and dozens of other Chinese news outlets.
The foreigner-friendly publication, Shanghaiist, published a story about my video going viral, and a small wave of haters came crashing down as a result. People belittled me for making this video as if I’m the cause for world hunger or something. I learned that expats living in China are some of the most jaded folks in existence, as the Shanghaiist comments section made very clear:
As a content creator, I’m firm in believing that haters are a good thing. If you have an original idea, and you don’t have haters, you’re doing something wrong. Embrace the haters and turn their negative energy into positive output.
In May, the second episode of the series, Hangzhou, gained a ton of attention on Chinese social media. By that time, I had real hope that this series would gain some traction, especially with the help of Youzimu, a media company that re-uploads my videos with Chinese subtitles on various Chinese social media.
In the Hangzhou video, I showed my friend’s 杭州人 chest tattoo on camera, which means Hangzhou native. But then the comments section blew up. I learned that the characters behind 杭州人 are apparently inappropriate.
In June, for episode three, I collaborated with Trevor James, AKA The Food Ranger, in Chengdu. We had already met each other about a year prior so this meet-up was like a reunion. It was a blast filming with Trevor, and because he was already well established on YouTube, working with him gave my channel a huge boost in subscribers. I learned that eating rabbit head is a cheap and enjoyable way to experience real Sichuan cuisine.
After filming episode three, my employment contract at Shanghai High School International Division was finished. In July I began traveling and filming full-time.
Curtis and I hopped on a sleeper train to Beijing. The Beijing episode had to be filmed over three days due to various reasons, which meant that I wore the same sweaty shirt and shorts for three days in the sweltering heat.
That week, we partied in the Santilun bar area and had a blast making friends and staying up until wee hours of the night. I learned that foreigners drink for free in Beijing clubs, which resulted in nearly every Beijing morning starting with a hangover.
After filming in Beijing, Curtis had to head back to Shanghai to deal with some visa issues for his next job. That left him out of commission for nearly three weeks, and left me all alone to travel and film in Taiwan and Chiang Mai.
I flew to Taipei and met with my buddy and former football teammate, Pei. It’s safe to say that, without him, this video probably wouldn’t have been possible. As the most politically charged video yet, this episode drew the ire of the mainland when folks found that it contained opinions which don’t correlate with those of the mainland. For the first time ever, my video was censored. I learned that Chinese mainlanders don’t like being told that Taiwan has preserved its culture better than China, and that the Falun Gong are supposedly an evil cult.
After a leisurely trip to Hualien, a beachside city in Taiwan, where I filmed an episode of STREET FOOD SHOWDOWN, I headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was here that I met the friendly staff of the ThailandWOW2 Hostel. Kate, the girl who was in this video with me, really made this project a lot more exciting than it would have been if I were filming alone. Big shout out to Kate for making my stay in Chiang Mai an amazing one. I learned that budget hostels always have the friendliest staff.
After filming in Chiang Mai, Kate and her friends invited me to join them in the mountains north of Chiang Mai for a beautiful getaway from the city, where we stayed in bamboo huts and ate local cuisine. I learned that playing card games for hours actually is a fun way to pass time.
From Chiang Mai, I took a bus down to Bangkok. By this time, Curtis was finished with his visa situation and now was free to help me film a few more episodes. When the Bangkok video was published on Facebook, it immediately went viral and had more than a million views within a couple of days. To this day, it’s the most-viewed video I’ve ever made.
With this viral sensation came a wave of love from the interwebz. Within a week I had received hundreds of personal messages from folks in Thailand who saw the video. I’m not gonna lie, it was a lot of fun chatting up some of the fine ladies who expressed their love of the series. I learned that uploading videos to the internet is a great to way meet girls.
With our egos boosted and our seventh video done, Curtis and I bused down to Phuket. Some old friends from Shanghai met up with us and we enjoyed the wildness of Phuket’s insane party street, Bangla Road.
It was here that I got sick for the first time and I was out of commission for a full week. I couldn’t go more than 100 meters from my hostel bathroom without fear of emergency bowel evacuation. My immune system was weakened from street food, sleepless nights, and liters of booze. I learned that my iron stomach isn’t invincible.
Once my body was back in action, three of my friends and I boated down to Koh Lanta, a small island near Krabi, where we filmed episode eight. It felt good to be healthy again, so I was feeling recharged and ready to continue with the series.
The whole crew joined us in Koh Lanta, so of course we were having a blast, off camera. I learned that the best time and place to enjoy magic mushroom milkshakes is by the beach after midnight.
The day before we left Koh Lanta, red flags were posted everywhere along the beach because the waves were MASSIVE. Being the daredevils we are, that didn’t deter us from swimming. Curtis seriously injured his knee and had to use a wheelchair to traverse the airport. It all worked out in my favor, because I got to skip to the front of boarding and taxi lines with my newly handicapped friend.
With Koh Lanta in the books, Curtis and I traveled to Phnom Penh to film the first of the Cambodia videos. While it wasn’t included in the video, I did visit the Killing Fields and S-21 prison to learn about Cambodia’s dark history and the Khmer Rouge.
Similar to Angkor Wat, these popualr tourist destinations weren’t included in the series because they’re a little too expensive, but I visited them for my own travel experience. On a brighter note, I learned that almost every tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh is a drug dealer.
With the help of camboticket.com, Curtis and I bused up to Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Angkok Wat, and home of an amazing pub street. Here, Curtis and I ate grilled mouse and boiled snake, which to this day are the strangest things I’ve ever stomached (though the mouse meat actually wasn’t bad).
The hostel where we stayed in Siem Reap was home to a rather friendly cat that, for whatever reason, took a liking to us. It slept in our room almost every night. We tried to get it to split the cost of the room, but it refused to pay! I learned that cats are stingy creatures.
We filmed the tenth episode of the series in Siem Reap and stayed for an extra couple of days to party on the famous Pub Street. While we were out, a few people recognized Curtis and me from the Phnom Penh video. It was so cool meeting and chatting with folks who’d seen the videos and enjoyed them. I learned that Cambodians are an amazing fanbase.
I’m gonna take a second to say thank-you to the Cambodian community; you all have been the coolest, most supportive group when it came to this series. Cambodians were so stoked when I made a video about their cities, and I received so many personal messages from dozens of Cambodians who told me that I could come stay at their crib if I needed to. Thank you, Cambodia! You rock!
After episode ten, Curtis went back to China to start his new job, which left me by myself to travel and film the rest of these videos alone. It was a sad time for me, so I shaved my beard to commemorate his departure.
So I headed down to Sihanoukville alone, feeling sorry for myself and wishing I hadn’t ever tried ‘ice.’ One of the fans of Monkey Abroad owns a bar on the beach in Sihanoukville, so I met up with him and partied at his bar after filming this episode with some other cool cats. I got my flow back, and I learned that solo traveling doesn’t mean you’re alone.
When the Sihanoukville video was finished, I caught a night bus to Saigon. I’m just gonna throw this out there: Vietnam is the best country in Southeast Asia for backpackers. Period. It’s fun, it’s cheap, and the food is outstanding. And if you disagree with me, what the PHO are you gonna do about it?
It was raining the entire time during my stay in Saigon, but I still had a blast. Plus, everywhere I went, girls were asking to take photos with me. You won’t see me complaining about that.
I also got to meet up with one of the best video bloggers in Vietnam, Kyle Le. We collaborated and made a couple of videos together, which was a blast. We also vented about our experiences with YouTube and found a lot of common ground. I learned that pho in the south is supposedly way better than pho in the north.
Then came Hanoi. The Chien Hostel expressed an interest in working with me on this series, so I stayed there for a bit and filmed the video with the help of the Chien Hostel staff. Hanoi is so incredibly cheap that it didn’t even cost 15 dollars to film this episode. I learned that pho in the south is indeed better than the pho in the north.
As a side job, the owner of Chien Hostel invited me to take a couple of tours with a company that he also owns, Ocean Tours. For the first time ever, I traveled on a sponsored trip. Actually, two sponsored trips. The first was to beautiful Halong Bay, and the second was to the remote mountainous region of Sapa. I learned that working with sponsors is the best way to travel.
After returning to Hanoi on a night bus from Sapa, I barely caught my flight to the Philippines, landing first in Manila then heading straight to Boracay. I hadn’t slept in two days, and in my sleep-deprived state I witnessed the most serene sunset I’d ever seen. I learned that sleep is for suckers.
That week, despite it raining every day, I filmed the Boracay video. It took about four days to film because the weather just wouldn’t cooperate. And then, once I had finished filming and editing the video, on my last day in Boracay, the weather miraculously cleared up and the water looked amazing. So I strapped up and took the camera out again to reshoot a few more shots, including the introduction shot.
If you watch the video closely, you can tell that it was shot on different days because the weather varies throughout. I learned that people are way more likely to click on YouTube video thumbnails if it shows a girl in a bikini.
While I was in Boracay I met some really cool folks, including Paul, a Cebu native. Paul and I kept in touch, and when I flew to Cebu to film that episode, I reached out to him. Little did I know that Paul would become the best guide in the history of this series.
Looking back on every episode of this series, I had the most fun filming with Paul in Cebu. Not only was he a really cool guy who knew a lot about the city, but he has a background in video production, so he understood how to use a camera and what a good shot looks like.
Where most bloggers only show the beaches near Cebu, I hoped to show the local aspects of Cebu City. I learned that Cebu is way more than just a city of transit for tourists looking to find the nearest beach.
With Cebu in the books, I caught a cheap flight to Palawan, then enjoyed a five-hour van ride up north to El Nido. Here, I met a tough looking fellow named Dong who told me he’s involved with cock-fighting. Rather than film the beach of El Nido like every other travel blogger in history, I went off the beaten path and showed a side of Filipino culture that I knew would draw the ire of animal lovers, my own mother included.
Even though I didn’t bet and I tried to be as impartial as possible, I was still accused of supporting animal cruelty. Here, I learned that some people get angry about anything.
Aside from the cock fighting and beachside chilling, I also met some cool folks. Shout out to the El Nido crew that made me feel at home here!
After the El Nido video was done, I contacted my friend and manager at the Mad Monkey Hostel in Boracay. We had met each other a couple weeks prior when he recognized me as Monkey Abroad, and asked if I had any interest in working with them to make a video.
With a week remaining until my flight out of the Philippines, I returned to Boracay to film a couple of promotional videos, including a booze cruise video that tested my ability to stay focused on a task while drunk. I learned that I can film while drunk, but it’s much more difficult.
Because I’m an idiot, on my last night in Boracay, I stayed up the whole night until the next morning to catch an early morning flight to Manila en route to Hong Kong. I learned that a full day in-transit while still drunk from the night before must be what the 7th circle of hell is like.
When I arrived in Hong Kong, I met my friend Jackie. She was gracious enough to let me crash at her place for a few days while I recovered from sleep deprivation, then we filmed the Hong Kong episode.
Quick message to the haters: it’s impossible to travel in Hong Kong for 20 dollars a day unless you couch-surf, so quit moaning that I’m a ‘cheater’ for sleeping on her couch.
I learned that some folks don’t understand I MAKE THE RULES, AND COUCH-SURFING AIN’T CHEATING.
With Hong Kong filmed, I hopped on a flight to Delhi, India. Believe me when I say that I was more excited about the street food here than any other city I’d ever visited. During my first few days here, I toured the city and tried every dish that looked appetizing. I couldn’t spend my money quickly enough because everything was so outrageously cheap.
I’d never been in a city that was so inexpensive, so that’s why I decided to make the Delhi episode different. Instead of asking what’s possible with 20 bucks, I asked if it’s even possible to spend 20 dollars eating only street food.
The challenge: eat 1,000 rupees worth of street food in a single day. I called it the Delhi Belly Challenge, and even though I tried my best, I was barely able to eat 600 rupees worth of food.
The evening after I filmed the Delhi episode, I felt a storm coming. No, not a storm. A hurricane. A gastrointestinal tornado of epic proportions. I learned that I must have a death wish.
It was around the time that this storm was crashing that my mom came to visit me. She arrived and we set off to Goa, India’s Spring Break party region. I feel bad that my mom was visiting during a time when I couldn’t venture far from the toilet, but we still had a great time. We hadn’t seen each other in fifteen months, so even in my state, I was elated.
We toured Old Goa together, went to the beach, and caught up on stories. I began filming some shots for a Goa episode, including some with my mom. Then my mom left, and I was back on my own. I checked in to my new hostel, the Funky Monkey, and made some new friends there.
Then India was struck with a currency crisis. Oh my god, what a nightmare that was. It basically put everyone in the country in the most terrible position possible, and none of the cash I had could be spent. It was like all my money suddenly turned into useless paper.
It was around the time that this crisis was sinking in that something happened. I lost my motivation to film. All I wanted to do was relax, put the camera away, and take in each moment like every other backpacker. So that’s exactly what I did. It was in Goa, India that I decided that season one of Traveling for 20 Dollars a Day is done.
The Real Challenge of 20 Dollar Traveling
The real challenge is creating content that inspires you. One thing is for sure: I’m not the smartest or most informative blogger out there. My only hope is that you view these videos and feel that you, too, can travel anywhere safely and cheaply, all while having an unforgettable experience that will hopefully shape your character and help you to see how amazing life really is. Even on a shoestring budget.
I don’t actually live on just 20 dollars a day. Factoring in all costs of travel, I was honestly going through about $2,000 USD/month for the last five months. I could have done it for much less, but I also wanted to have fun with the money I’d earned these last few years.
As I’ve said before, the reason for this series isn’t to realistically showcase my life of traveling. Its purpose (hopefully) is to encourage and inspire you to get out and travel the world. If you feel inspired to get out and have your own 20-dollar adventure, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Hostels I want to thank:
The full list of hostels and guesthouses where I stayed is much longer, but these places are the ones that left me with the fondest memories. Book any of these places if you’re in the neighborhood; they’ve got my official Monkey Seal of Approval:
Shanghai, China – City Central Youth Hostel
Beijing, China – Feel Inn Hostel
Chiang Mai, Thailand – ThailandWOW 2 Hostel
Koh Lanta, Thailand – Paulee’s House
Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Mick & Craig’s Guesthouse
Saigon, Vietnam – Hangout Hostel
Hanoi, Vietnam – Chien Hostel
Boracay, Philippines – Second Wind Hostel (perfect chill out spot), Mad Monkey Hostel (perfect party spot)
Cebu, Philippines – Tr3ats Guesthouse
El Nido, Palawan – Amos Hostel
Delhi, India – Joey’s Hostel
So what’s next?
I’m back in Hong Kong at the moment sorting out my visa to come back to China. Shanghai feels like home after living there for two years, and I’m stoked to see all my friends and former colleagues. I’ll be filming videos in China, but will likely hold off on the 20 dollar traveling for a while, at least until I save some more money.
This isn’t the end of Traveling for 20 Dollars a Day, it’s just the end of season one. Asia has been showcased this time around, but what about South America, Europe, or Africa? Who knows how many episodes of this series might exist by the year 2020?
Thanks for following me on this adventure. If you’re one of the few folks who actually read this entire blog post, then props to you. Seriously. There’s no way I’d have the patience to read this whole thing myself.
Until next time, monkeys!