The Currency of Pad Thai

Derek Travel Costs, Travel Tips & Advice 72 Comments

I just can’t stop thinking about pad thai.

Lovingly tossed rice noodles, mixed with fish sauce, tofu, vegetables, egg and chicken (or shrimp) and topped with a sprinkling of chili powder, bean sprouts, ground peanuts and freshly squeezed lime juice. It is hands-down the most splendid dish on the planet.

However, even though I love to eat these noodles as often as possible, the reason why thoughts of pad thai so constantly occupy my mind actually has much less to do with its ingredients than it does with…shopping.

Think about this for a moment. You’re shopping for a new television and you find yourself standing in the store deciding whether or not to buy the sleek 32-inch Sony Bravia or to save your money for something else. Your mind debates back and forth, weighing the options…

‘It’s only $499, that’s a good deal. But I could use that money to pay half my rent this month or pay off some credit card debt. Or maybe I should just buy that $200 jacket I’ve wanted for a while and use the rest of the money to buy two tickets to that Don Henley concert in three weeks.’

This can go on for a few minutes, a few days or even a few weeks until you ultimately decide what to do. There is no doubt that spending money can at times be a tough decision.

Here’s where the pad thai comes in…

Now picture having to weigh every single potential purchase against the number of plates of the most amazing pad thai imaginable that you could receive for that same amount of money.

What am I talking about?

Let me introduce you to the Currency of Pad Thai, a currency with such an attractively high exchange rate that it is guaranteed to transform all of your wildest fantasies of world travel into realistic and achievable goals, while motivating you to get started on your dream journey right away.

In order to understand the system, you need to first be aware that there is a particular Thai woman who runs a simple food stall located at the corner of Chakrapong Road and Soi Rambutri in Bangkok. This kind lady never stops cooking as she spends her days and nights dishing out tasty, generous plates of pad thai to a constant line of customers. One plate of her out-of-this-world pad thai costs a mere 15 baht (44 US cents).

Now, with that knowledge in mind, let’s return to shopping. Whenever I’m about to make a non-travel related purchase, the internal debate inside my head goes something like this:

‘Should I buy those sneakers? They’re only $65. I don’t know. For that amount of money I could feast on 140 plates of my favorite pad thai in Bangkok!’

Crazy, I know. I could eat for four and a half months in Thailand just by keeping the perfectly good sneakers I already have and saving $65! It blows my mind every time!

If you need to buy a new camera, think twice before spending $400. Buy a perfectly good camera for $200 and you now have enough money left over for 444 plates of pad thai as you travel around Southeast Asia.

Too many of us think that world travel is simply impossible or that it requires an amount of money that we simply don’t have. This just isn’t true.

The money is there, you just need to re-arrange your spending habits. And that is exactly what the Currency of Pad Thai forces potential world travelers to do. You will forever be reminded of how far your money can take you in foreign lands, motivating you to eliminate some of the unnecessary purchases you regularly make so that you can start traveling as soon as possible.

Perhaps you need further inspiration than just pad thai. Luckily, I have a solution. I often use another, much bolder, value comparison system that works with remarkable success. It is known as the Currency of Nights in Bangladesh. This system is not for the faint-hearted and it has its roots in the 42 taka (60 US cents) I once spent for a hotel room in Bangladesh (not the most luxurious of accommodations, but a bed nonetheless).

Let’s take another look at those $65 sneakers. We already know that $65 can buy 140 plates of pad thai, but here’s the shocker…it will also get you 108 nights of accommodation in Bangladesh. You could backpack around this land of tea fields, monkey-filled jungles, friendly villages, Sundarban mangrove forests and the Chittagong hill tracts for three and a half months by avoiding one simple purchase!

Here’s another example. When I bought my Sony Vaio laptop last year, I had to think twice before dishing out that kind of money. I couldn’t stop thinking about the 4250 plates of pad thai (enough for 3 meals per day for 4.5 years!) I was giving up or the 3225 nights in Bangladesh (yes, almost a decade!) I could have enjoyed for that money.

I would imagine that some of you are thinking ‘why would anyone even want to go to Bangladesh in the first place or eat so much pad thai?’ Those are indeed reasonable thoughts, but they are not relevant to the overall purpose here.

‘Pad Thai’ and ‘Nights in Bangladesh’ can be whatever you want them to be. They can be activities in Europe, hotels in Bangkok or bottles of local wine in Chile. I happen to love pad thai and third-world backpacking, so that is what personally motivates me, but there are an infinite number of choices…

Take a look at these typical expenses of life in the ‘real world’ and what a budget traveler could do with that kind of money while on the road:

$10,000 new car = 22,222 plates of pad thai or 16,666 nights in Bangladesh (yes, 45 years)

$1,200 furniture set = 5 weeks of accommodation, food and transport in South Africa

$375 barbecue grill = flight from NYC to Costa Rica

$199 watch = 10 nights of budget hotels in Eastern Europe

$145 cell phone = 3 days of accommodation, meals and travel in Turkey

$99 shoes = 6-month visa, 7 nights of decent hotels & a meal at my favorite restaurant in Delhi

$65 spent at a nightclub = 3-day/ 2-night boat trip around several remote islands in Thailand

$50 to fill up your car with gas = 3 nights in Buenos Aires

$35 bottle of wine = one week in a bungalow on a white sand beach in Indonesia

$4 cup of coffee = 9 plates of pad thai or 7 nights in Bangladesh

Just think about those numbers – if you eliminate 4 cups of coffee in one month, you would save enough money for four weeks of budget accommodation in Bangladesh or 36 plates of pad thai. Not to mention a train journey across India, 2 days of surfboard rental in Mexico, a wine tasting tour in Argentina, entrance fees to the Pyramids of Giza or a night in Prague. Just from $16 saved!

Imagine the results from eliminating your $30/month landline, sushi takeout three times a week, unnecessary clothes and a few random gadgets that you don’t really need anyway…you’ll be on that plane to paradise before you know it.

The point is – if you really want to travel, you can.

All you have to do is stay focused on the pad thai.

*Please share your comments below and let me know what methods you use to motivate yourself to save money for travel…

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Comments 72

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  3. Bettina

    I was having a similar conversation with some friends of mine the other day who informed me that they don’t make enough money to travel and are waiting until they reach a certain point in their careers… I will definitely have to show them this! Very well put!

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  5. Andy

    It’s so funny coming across this post, as from the moment my girlfriend and I decided to start traveling the world (in a couple months time), I haven’t been able to purchase anything without thinking where that money could take me down the road. I’ve started thinking to the extreme actually, as sometimes I would hesitate to buy basic things just because it would mean this or that while traveling (especially in terms of nights at one place, just like you said). I figure that once you get into that budget traveling state of mind, you just can’t help it. Great post.

  6. Ben

    Earl, I love this post and this perspective on money! I’ve been doing the same thing recently using the “Nights in X”. I’ve been wanting to by a new lens for my camera (so that I can have 1 lens instead of 2), but every time I look at the $400 cost I think of how many nights that would buy me at the hostel I use in Bangkok (over 2 months). Needless to say, I haven’t bought the lens.

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  9. dreamygirl

    Hi Earl,
    I am from India. I am 22 years old now and I want to travel whole Europe within 3 years. Indian currency is a joke in comparison with euros. What do I do in that case? How do I earn in Europe? Its seems like an impossible dream so far 🙁 Your articles are so fantastic and motivating that I thought I should ask you about what you think about my situation.

    P.S: I don’t have enough money to take a flight yet 🙁 🙁

    1. Wandering Earl

      @dreamygirl – The thing is that there is no one way to make it happen. You just need to start off by finding one opportunity that allows you to travel somewhere and to earn money overseas. You just have to keep looking and networking with as many people as you can until an opportunity arises and you can take that first step. Then, once that first step is taken, you will discover even more opportunities and slowly, you’ll be able to achieve your travel goals.

  10. Courtney Figueroa Watkins!! I’m a street food junkie and I LOVE Pad Thai..I hope and Pray that little lady at the corner of Chakrapong Road and Soi Rambutri in Bangkok is still there when I arrive next year! Thank you for this inspirational post Earl! I really hope to run into you on my traveling journey!

  11. Katy

    I just discovered your site tonight, and how unfortunate that is because I have to wake up early to go to work and I know that I’m going to be up late reading your excellent blog…It’s all your fault haha.
    But back to the topic, it’s funny that you mention “the currency of pad thai”. I do the exact same thing and no one else seems to understand when I try to explain it. I’m glad that I’m not the only one that constantly weighs out my decisions…”Do I need those new jeans? Or do I want 3 nights in a hostel in Paris in the Winter?”
    Sometimes it’s a hard decision since I’m currently just saving right now so my trip can be a graduation gift to myself for completing my Associates.
    I don’t always win the fight, but I’m glad that I’m not the only one that has a “currency” to compare my purchases too…

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Katy – Welcome to the site but I sure hope you made it to work 🙂 And I agree that it is not possible to always win the fight but just keeping the ‘currency of pad thai’ in the back of your head certainly helps ensure that you think about the spending decisions you are faced with instead of just tossing money away needlessly. That alone will help save plenty of money!

  12. Coda

    I absolutely love this system you have here! This idea is now firmly planted in my mind and written in my notebook for reference. I will DEFINITELY use this! 🙂

  13. jonny

    This is a brilliant system. My own version is the currency of tacos! I live in France and the other day I was contemplating a trip to Paris, but the train is so expensive that all I could do was think how many 6 peso tacos I could eat with that money when I go to Mexico in a couple of weeks’ time.

    Nonetheless, I try not to use this strategy too much otherwise you just end up not spending any money! E.g. a 3 nights’ accommodation in Marseille recently cost me €81 – ah the perils of Western Europe. It was definitely worth it – I really wanted to visit the city. But if I remind myself of how cheap accommodation in Bangladesh/Mexico/dream destination X is, then I may have never gone! 🙂

  14. Kimmy @ AfterGlobe

    This is a great way to put spending on things that aren’t really needed into perspective. I’m emailing this link to my husband, right now. He doesn’t really need another pair of work pants…

  15. Diewertje

    Haha great post! So recognisable! I actually don’t have a problem cutting back on stuff I don’t really need. But I do compare when something brings my attention to the fact that due to saving for travel, my lifestyle and spending budget is waaaaaay different from that of the people around me. Whenever someone I know buys something stupidly expensive, I compare it to estimated month budgets though… So that when I get jealous of someone’s gorgeous 500 euro purse, I think about how I can spend a month travelling through Peru with that money. Now thàt’s something to be jealous about 😉

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  17. robbie lenox

    I think of cash saved as beer tokens. i.e. a bottle of Leo beer in Thailand is 30 bht in a Thai style 7.11 and you get to meet the locals sat outside on the concrete tables, and in turn become a local! Fresh ham and cheese sandwich, filled out with tomato,cucumber,onion,lettuce,mustard and chilli sauce at the free salad bar works out at 24bht! 50p in real money!

  18. George

    Hi Derek,

    I like the way you explain things since it’s easy to make others understanding them too 😉

    I find it stupid spending over 100$ going out to clubs with friends which waste all their money in these places. Socializing is a must but not at any price.

    I’m glad to have come across your website since I don’t have much people in my life thinking the way you do.

    All the best and have a great day 😉


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  21. Kelly Dunning

    OMG… this post made me so hungry for Pad Thai. Good thing I’m in Southeast Asia right now.

    I love this idea of thinking of your money in this way. It’s truly remarkable how much farther your money goes in some countries. The comparison between a $10,000 car or 45 years in Bangladesh made me laugh out loud.
    When I was saving up like crazy to go on my first trip when I was 21, I was working a full time job plus bagging groceries on evenings and weekends to get to my goal faster. It helped me to mentally break my boring supermarket shift into sections according to how many nights at a hostel in Europe I had earned.

    1. Earl

      Hey Kelly – That’s an awesome way of approaching your job! It’s so much more rewarding to come home from a long shift with 3 nights worth of accommodation overseas! I’d imagine that would indeed help keep you motivated 🙂

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  23. Gregory

    I have done this for years, but with chuar (kebabs in Beijing), they used to be around 6 cents but over the past 7 years has risen to about 16 cents, still pretty cheap. And just about every purchase made the thought came “how many chuar can I buy with that much money?” Well, lets just say I ended up eating a Sh*t load of chuar everyday and not buying much else. 🙂

    But watch out for that inflation, with rising prices and exchange rates, things go up. In China the exchange rate went from 8.26 now to 6.3 RMB to 1 USD. And Chuar went from .5RMB to 1RMB.

    I actually picked this up from a chinese friend, everytime I would buy anything, and I mean anything, he would say “U know how many chuar can eat?? So many Chuar! Room of Chuar! Why buy? Eat Chuar!” So I ended up eating Chuar and not buying shoes to exercise in or a gym pass, guess I know why I am a fat ass now! 🙂

    Which leads to the next realization, whatever your base is choose wisely, now I don’t think “Oh, I can have so many Chuar!” nope, that is gone, now I think “If I buy this I don’t have to eat that many chuar! Lets get the better phone!” Funny how things change.

    Forget those shoes and phones, get me some Chuar! or wait, maybe I should get that gym pass!

    1. Earl

      Hey Gregory – Haha…I guess things have backfired at this point for you! Perhaps the key is to have several items to reference when making spending decisions so that we don’t get too sick of one thing!

  24. Lindsey

    I apply the principal behind “Currency of Pad Thai” to my everyday life and it has helped me cut down on the materialistic clutter that bogs down many a person but I have never thought of applying it to help me travel. I’ve been out of my country only once and I love the experience. When it was time to go home I almost cried. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to travel more. And not just travel for the sake of seeing yet another tourist attraction (although I do want to see them too) but for the interest of meeting people, experiencing culture, and learning about the local plants and wildlife (yes, I am also an outdoor buff). You have inspired me to use the Currency of Pad Thai so that one day, and hopefully one day soon, I will be able to start my travels.

    1. Earl

      Hey Lindsey – That’s so great to hear and believe me, it definitely works. Once you start spending/saving money with this mindset, once you start to realize what kind of travel experiences you could have for the amount of money you spend each month, it becomes very easy to save up for that next trip!

  25. Nikki

    Absolutely brilliant. I have been travelling for 4 years and think the exact same thing. My friends at home wouldn’t dare stay in a hostel or eat off the street, they just do not get it. Friends came to meet me in Thailand and payed $150 for 1 nights accommodation and they could not understand why i refused to stay with them….. Thats a months accommodation and a hell of a lot more fun.

    Loving all of your blogs 🙂

    1. Earl

      Thanks Nikki! Some people just can’t see the point but I’ve had friends similar to yours and once I show them that you can get a great room for $10 in a country like Thailand, many of them started to understand my travel style a little more. But it is tough as some people just associate travel with luxury without realizing that such comfort doesn’t have to cost a ton of money.

    1. Earl

      Hey Bethaney – That’s a shame 🙂 A friend of mine did confirm such a place about two months ago on Rambuttri but maybe that stall is no longer there.

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  28. bernie

    Hi Earl.. yeah a great way of thinking! and yeah i wish i had found that lady when i was in bkk! never had food that cheap there!!!!! must find it next time!! all the best bernie

    1. Earl

      Hey Bernie – I hope that lady is still there. I guess I need to revisit Bangkok just to find out 🙂 At least in Thailand, even if you pay double or triple that price for a meal, it’s still a bargain!

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  30. Alice

    Haha! I thought it was only me who was crazy enough to convert purchases to “things I could afford/ do abroad if I didn’t buy this”. Actually, I’ve even done the pad thai-thing before.
    Already put “finding Earl’s pad thai” lady to my to-do-list for Bangkok this December.

    You just made my day!

    1. Earl

      Hey Alice – You’re definitely not alone! I personally feel that converting purchases in this manner is one of the keys to having been able to travel for so long. And yes, you should check out the pad thai lady when you get to Bangkok. She never fails to satisfy 🙂

  31. Lyuda Tishchenko

    What a great post! This makes me feel like travel is possible for me in the near future. And I’m definitely rethinking the way I spend my money.


    1. Earl

      Hey Lyuda – As soon as we start changing the way we spent money, it’s amazing how we suddenly are in a better position to achieve our goals!

  32. Murray Lunn

    Ha! Earl, this is excellent.

    I made my own take during the trip my friend and I took to Japan & Thailand. I called it the ‘Economics of Beer’. We’re young and we definitely wanted to check out the night life while traveling so I would reference the cost of items (like shoes) vs. how much for a beer.

    I know this is obviously really crazy because it’s not food but it did let us get out more often and meet some very interesting people that later treated us to food for being such great entertainment!

    1. Earl

      Hey Murray – Your method works all the same! It’s just another lesson in the prioritization of spending and how we are able to achieve what may appear as crazy goals, just by changing the way we spend money. And glad to know you managed to eat a little on that trip and that it wasn’t only a diet of beer 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Dani – I’m not surprised you think like this as well! As long-term travelers we realize that it’s the only way to think if we want to achieve our travel goals 🙂

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  34. Lape

    Hi Earl,
    ” ‘why would anyone even want to go to Bangladesh in the first place or eat so much pad thai?’ Those are indeed reasonable thoughts, but they are not relevant to the overall purpose here.” Your sense of humour is one of the reasons I keep coming back to your blog 🙂

  35. Scott

    A few months ago I started to look into traveling seriously. Discovering how little money I truly needed to travel was a very pleasant eye opener. I’m headed out next month for at least one year and I plan on eating the hell out of some pad thai.

    Great Post.


    1. Earl

      Hey Scott – That’s excellent that your adventure is only a month away! There’s no stopping you now. And I think that this idea, that one doesn’t need much money to travel, is probably the most important lesson to learn. After all, upon discovering this truth, one is able to start traveling sooner rather than later and as a result, begin reaping the long-lasting benefits of travel almost immediately.

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  38. Mark Lawrence

    What an awesome concept!!! While saving money for my trip, I used to think of each purchase in terms of how many hours I’d have to work (ie spend time at a job I didn’t like) in order to buy the item. This is so exciting to read because I can’t wait to travel. There will be a complete shift in how I view purchases. It’s not hours worked it’s dishes of Pad Thai. I really hope inflation or popularity has caused this woman to raise prices, though it seems she deserves to and she can.

    1. Earl

      Hey Mark – Your method is a good one as well! I think either way, as long as we start to realize how far our money can go in helping us achieve our travel goals, then we’re on the right track. I would imagine that the woman has indeed raised her prices by now. But even if the price was doubled, the pad thai would still be worth the price and the pad thai currency system would still be as effective!

  39. Hugh

    Wow that’s definitely good food for thought (excuse the pun!). I’ve often thought about that specifically when dining out. It kills me to think how many great home-cooked meals I could make with the money spent at a big dinner out.

    Money is obviously always somewhat of a constraint, no matter who you are, but for me, time is more constraining at this stage of my life. If only I could free up some more time so I can live the pad thai lifestyle!

    I have to try out your 44 cent pad-thai stop when I’m in Bangkok this May. Does your lady have a name or will I just find her at that intersection?

    1. Earl

      Thanks for the comment Hugh. I actually don’t know the lady’s name but she is guaranteed to be there right at that intersection with her tiny food cart. She’ll be on the corner in front of the bank! And make sure you add a traditional Thai massage at Wat Po (one of the major Buddhist temple’s in Bangkok) to your list…the pain of the body-twisting massage is well worth it in the end!

  40. Jonny |

    Lol, love the currency of PadThai although I have to say I have probably eaten about a pair of trainers worth of them since being here in Bangkok as it truely is the food of the Gods.

    It was very interesting reading your article as this idea of benchmarking expenses against what it could buy elsewhere is what i have found myself doing recently. I own nothing at the moment so I benchmark the cost of flights against month I could live in Bangkok having an awesome life.

    Great post Earl

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  42. Adrian

    BRILLIANT! I’ve been doing this for a while, albeit less scientifically, and it’s amazing how many unneccessary purchases it will keep you from making.

    Of course, now I have to find this nice lady with 15 baht pad thai!

  43. Clay

    This is what I started doing about a year ago. The temptation to spend money goes away quickly when I realize I can live for a few days in South America instead of go out for one $50 dinner in the States that I’ll enjoy for about two hours at most.

    I had friends that told me they wanted to travel like me but couldn’t do it for money reasons. So whenever I spent time with them and they started shelling out money for things they didn’t need, I’d make a comparison like one of many in this post. “You can spend that money on new shoes and new pants, or you could buy a roundtrip plane ticket to the Caribbean.”

    No wonder I don’t have friends anymore. 🙁

    1. admin

      Hey Clay!
      Thank you for commenting. You’re exactly right…once you realize the true travel value of even $50, it’s amazing how much you can save. In the end, I think that most people are simply afraid to travel like you have because it requires them to leave the safety of the ‘real world’ behind. As a result, they just use money as an excuse which prevents them from chasing their dreams. ‘What a shame’ I say!

    2. George

      Haha so funny to see that people are not ready to accept the reality as it is.

      I’m not much better since I’m spending most of my money but I can agree with you that you are totally Right 😉

      It’s sad to see that human nature is about accepting others as soon they are nice, if they change however it’s totally a different world since a lot of things are showing to be fake.

      I’m not an exemple but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone to think the way You do 😉

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