How Much Does It Cost to Be Free for a Year?

The other day, I whizzed passed a weekly market in a tiny little countryside town. My food pannier was already bursting with discounted bread and jelly donuts (five for $0.50!) from the mammoth, air-conditioned supermarket I had visited the day before, so at first I didn’t even stop. Then I remembered, as I sometimes have to force myself to, that I’m not here to zip past everything I see. I’m here to actually see it.

I turned around, backtracked for a few seconds, dismounted, and then ambled into the market, not in the least surprised by all the stares the locals were casting towards my filthy, gargantuan bicycle and my scrawny, not-recently-washed, sunburned, spandex-clad body. After all, wouldn’t I do the same if I saw someone like me looking for a place to lean his bike in the middle of a Walmart?

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I set my bike against a table that nobody was using, removed my cycling gloves and neck buff, and put on a (or rather, my one and only) pair of pants over my riding shorts, since they happen to be tighter than either of the two pairs of underwear I travel with. Then I poked around the market for a bit, relishing in the fact that out of all the things for sale, I didn’t need a single one. Shoes? Flops? Clothes? Gadgets? Trinkets? Cleaners? Perfumes? Sausages? It would be possible to describe my life nowadays so that it sounds hard – being constantly lost, speaking only a few words of whatever local language, rarely knowing where I’ll sleep or when my next meal will come, sweating a lot – but the reality is that it’s easy. So easy. As long as I have my wheels, my tent, a few bananas, and a couple liters of water, I don’t have to have a care in the world.

I suppose this carefree look must have been written all over my face, because as I stopped at one stall to buy roast soybeans – insisting that the auntie dish them out of the giant sack and directly into my tupperware, rather than by way of a small plastic bag- the owner said, in a tone serious enough to make me a little uncomfortable, “You have too much money.”

Even though it’s happened pretty frequently over the last year, I get somewhat uncomfortable when discussions with locals turn to the cost of my bicycle and of my travels, or how much money I have in general. First off, it makes me feel guilty – I almost certainly have more money than a guy who makes his living selling snacks at a moving market. I probably have more money than any given ten or twenty or thirty countryside Thais combined. And it’s not because I earned it. Of course I worked hard and made good choices and all of that, but all that really amounts to is making the best use out of the many opportunities that I’ve been presented with my whole life long. There are no doubt lots of people who work a whole lot harder than me and have a whole lot less to show for it. I was probably surrounded by them at that very moment.

Then it gets me righteous. Why should I feel guilty for something that’s not my fault? Is it fair to blame me for studying hard, for choosing to attend the best college that would have me, and for picking a job that would pay me well? Or for later ceding that job to somebody else once I had saved up enough to let me do what I really wanted? For developing habits and preferences that help me hoard my cash rather than watch it wash away? And don’t I put a lot of thought into how to use my money and good fortune responsibly? A minute later. well after the opportunity had passed, it occured to me to ask the guy whether he has a house, a car, a tv, or a bit of land? I don’t; everything I own fits into a parking space.

It also gets me political and philosophical. I want to tell him that not all Americans have as much money or as cushy a lifestyle as he’s imagining, that in some cases it may be harder to be poor in America than in Thailand. And I want to tell him that those who do have tons of money aren’t necessarily happy. How do you say “Affulenza” in Thai?

If America is the land of big cars and big stars, why is it Thailand that gets to call itself “The Land of Smiles?”

All of this in a few microseconds before I do what I always do in this situation, which is kind of the only thing to do: force a smile and come up with something modest to say. It doesn’t convince either of us of anything, but it stops any tension from arising. I try a handful of the beans, tell him they’re tasty, and go on my way.

The reason I find this all so frustrating, and so interesting, is that the I believe the guy was largely right. Maybe more right than he knew; or maybe he’s smarter than I’m giving him credit for. Either way, I do have too much money, as does the rest of the developed world. After all, money is simply a representation of our power to consume things that come out of, or are made out of, the earth. There’s a statistic floating around out there that if everyone consumed like an American, we’d need three or four more planets. What that means is that we have three to four times too much money. One of my deepest beliefs is that we can get by – more than that, we can thrive – on much less. Easy to say, I know, but I do have proof in the form of a massive excel spreadsheet, the upshot of which is the following:

My life over the past year – traveling something like ten countries, trying innumerable new foods, camping amidst unbelievable scenery, making loads of friends, enjoying a bit of revelry, and even doing a bit of do-gooding every now and again – has cost me exactly….

Well, I’ll give you a second to guess. If you’ve been following my statistics posts, you can probably get into the ballpark pretty easily..


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(still stalling)

The answer is:


That’s all I had to pay for 384 days of cycling around the Orient. $11.31 a day.

To be fair about it, I could add in the $2700 I spent on gear starting up.

To be really fair about it, I could subtract from that $2700 the value of things that either a) most people who would consider a trip like this probably already own, like a waterproof jacket and a digital camera,;or b) I bought and brought with me all this way, but still haven’t used, and thus don’t really need, like my camping stove. And those four juggling balls. And the harmonica. That would bring the startup costs down by about $1000.

Also, for the record, I could have spent much less. Camping more, going to fewer UNESCO World Heritage Sites (generally not worth the $20 entrance fee in China), drinking less beer, and not stopping to try every single dumpling and pastry I see probably could have knocked ten to twenty percent off of my costs. I don’t regret much of this spending, but if I had been on a budget, I could’ve done without it.

So, your first year of bicycle travel can be had for about $6,000. The second year is cheaper, because rather than buying new equipment, you just have to fix up a bit of old stuff.

The point of me writing all this isn’t to argue that bicycling is the best thing you could possibly do with your money (though of course I believe that, aside from giving it all to a worthy charity or individual in need, it probably is); it’s to demonstrate that your money can take you farther/further than you realize. In other words, that you don’t need as much as you think. There’s no need to put off your round-the-world trip until you’re sixty and finished paying off your mortgage. Indeed, it’ll cost you MORE then, because you’ll have to pay the neighbor’s kids to mow your lawn. And you’ll probably insist on sleeping in a bed, rather than under a lean-to that some monk has set up for you. So, if you dream of hitting the road, get on it! You don’t even have to be a full-time vagabond like me; do it when you’re between jobs, or if you take a semester off. When it’s as affordable as it is, there can’t not be a way to make it happen.

The first time I came to Thailand, I did so with a Korean package tour company. It cost me $1700 for five days, during which time I didn’t visit a single Thai market and didn’t make a single Thai friend. I don’t regret it, because it contributed to making me who I am now. But what a terrible waste of hard-earned dough! I hope this post will save someone from making the same mistake. Happy trails!

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4 Responses to How Much Does It Cost to Be Free for a Year?

  1. Andy Pekema says:

    That’s less than my monthly taco budget.

    • Michael Roy says:

      …which means you could cycle for twelve years if you just gave up tacos for one.

      AND, if you went to Mexico to cycle, you could eat tacos the whole time!

  2. wimdog says:

    Amen, bro. Like that Chicago song, You’re the inspiration. Tonight, $30 for my portion of 12 bottles of Cass, 6 bottles of soju, 4 plates of sushi, a Korean name (허 재풍) and an American nickname: Big Mouse. Plus 6 hours of conversation of which I could understand about 1%. Dylan says hi.