Recently I spent 30 days in Thailand on a writing retreat. Mostly in Bangkok, but I did make it to one rural location (hiking, elephants) and one beach town. I did a ton of research ahead of time on Thailand and traveling there, but I was still unprepared for certain aspects. Here are my top tips on Thai travel plus a few silly stories of an author abroad.
This post assumes you’re a relatively frequent traveler and you have your packing and jet-lag routine down. FYI places I have travelled that are tropical (or semi tropical) before are Singapore, Mexico, Hawaii, and Florida.
Table of Contents – weeee!
- Packing tips for humidity
- Clothes to take (and not)
- Busting your expectations of Thailand (what are the beds like?)
- Things to consider around food/diet
- Working & writing as a digital nomad in Bangkok
- Author events
- Language tips & 20 ACTUALLY most used phrases
Packing for the Tropics!
I’m a style maven, what I bring and concider essential for trips to the tropics, month long or not, is certainly not for everyone! There’s no point in me advising you on the specifics of what to wear & pack, but I can give you guidelines.
1. Hoard silica gel packs!
Put these in with everything that could be damaged by moisture. Then put everything in tightly sealable plastic. Pills, ampules, gel caps, medication, tea bags, makeup – anything that can be affected by water will be if you don’t take precautions.
2. Don’t overpack moisturizer
If you are like me and have dry skin, you won’t need as much moisturizer as usual. I barely used any and normally I go through a massive bottle a month.
3. Do overpack sunscreen
Sunscreen every day on all exposed parts. Always & forever. It’s the FIRST thing you put on.
I have a blog post here all about makeup (+ sunscreen & such). I tried and tested my favorite Korean brand while I was there. For me it stood up to the humidity well. Here’s my recs:
- Favorite face sunscreen = Korean brand Isntree. This is a chemical sunscreen that goes on easy, absorbs fast, and dries to a skin-like feel. I love it so much. Its rating overseas is SPF 50+.
- For my body, and on-the-go reapplication (lives in my travel purse), I use Supergoop! Glow Stick.
- For solo travel I recommend a spray SPF 50 for your body, so you can reach your own back.
4. Consider mosquitos a THREAT
Bring a DEET-based bug repellent. Thailand is NOT malaria free, especially in certain rural areas. Please take precautions.
Bug spray is the LAST thing you put on your body. Sunscreen is the first (and let it dry for 20 minutes!)
5. Paper products are interesting – bring tissues
All paper products, including TP (when provided) are rough and small (like cocktail napkins) probably because of the humidity.
The thing I was most grateful to have packed extra of was: travel packs of tissues. Take lots, keep them on your person at all times.
The bathrooms are nice and clean. Most toilets will come with a bidet hose. Some rest areas, especially as you go more rural, will have squatting toilets.
You may need to pull provided toilet paper BEFORE you go into a stall.
Clothes Packing Tips
Reminder, I was mostly city living, not beach vacationing.
Everyone said that the streets and sidewalks are very uneven and slippery. This is absolutely correct. You want ALL shoes to have good grip and tread, but if you plan to visit temples or people’s homes, these also need to be close-toed and slip-off easily.
Thus hiking boots probably won’t work.
6. Shoes: Light weight slip-on lug-sole sneakers
If I were less of a fashionista 3 pairs of shoes would have worked, all slip on, good tread, comfortable:
- lug sneakers for hiking & long walks
- flats I can go to a fancy restaurant in
- sandals for beach or pool
My most worn/useful shoes turned out to be pointed toe flats (kind of like Rothey’s) with a good thick rubber sole that I packed last minute.
7. Leave your jacket at home
It is not just hot, it is also extremely humid, even in “cold” season.
Aside from AC (I carried a light cardy for indoors) and the plane I did NOT need a jacket.
Seriously: Pack the lightest weight clothing you can.
Also, clothing is very cheap in Thailand. You can also plan to pick something up, but they’re Asian sizes.
8. Even if you aren’t a sweaty person, you’re gonna sweat
If you are like me and don’t normally sweat much, so you’re used to re-wearing bras, pack extra bras!
You are gonna sweat.
9. Tourist spots – yes, dress with respect
If you plan to visiting temples, you need shirts that cover your upper arms and aren’t too low or revealing, a t-shirt is fine. You’ll also need full length pants (or maxi skirts) that aren’t too tight. Nothing see through.
In general I wore my vintage looking light weight t-shirt-cut blouses and 1940s style light-weight trousers the most. Or very light day dresses.
In Country Expectations
Getting to Thailand was 46 hours of crazy, including a medical emergency (not mine), but I talked about that travel whammy on my 20 Minute Delay podcast.
Here are the things that surprised me personally about this part of the world.
10. Think UK Mechanics & Electrics
Most of Thailand’s post WWII elements appear to be British influenced.
- Drivers sit on the right in cars. When they drive on one side of the road (which seems to be regarded as a mere suggestion), that side is the left.
- Light switches are the reverse of what USA expects, down = on, and they’re usually outside the bathrooms.
- It’s 220 power.
- Most plugs are Type G. Modern hotels in Bangkok will often have multi-use or US/Japan compatible plugs – however, the power running to them remains 220.
11. Yes you will probably need baht (local currency)
- Cash is King
- Visa is queen.
- Some places took Master Cards.
- No one really takes AMX or Discover.
12. Beds are hard, pillows are fluffy, and there’s no flat sheet
- All mattresses are on the firm end of the spectrum.
Although not as hard as Japan or Korea. I know to expect beds in Asia to be harder than I personally like (as a side sleeper). But when the expat podcast I listened to said that Thai beds are unexpectedly hard, they really meant it. Even the large sized western-style ones in tourist-catering hotels were HARD.
- Pillows tended to be on the fluffy and squishy end of the spectrum.
This made me happy. Down, understandably in a humid environment, was rare, possibly non-existent.
- This is one of those “no flat sheet” single duvet (not the same as a comforter) situations.
I blame ALL of Europe for this nonsense. So if you absolutely have to have a flat sheet to sleep properly (like moi), pack a sleep sack. I had mine packed exclusively (I thought) for the plane and then used it the entire trip.
Tips Around Food & Diet
Thailand is a food-centric culture. “Are you hungry?” is one of the most common questions. Instead of “how do you do” or talking about the weather, planning the next meal takes tantamount importance. Like the British “would you like a cuppa” the Thai “huuee mai kha/krap” “hungry?” is very much a question of welcome and affection. To which the answer is either “huuee, kha/krap” AKA “yes, I’m hungry” or “mai huuee kha/krap” “no thanks, I’m not.”
13. Food is convenient & cheap but will not cater to your dietary issues, allergies, pickiness, or preferences
- There is always good street food EVERYWHERE and it’s delicious and very inexpensive
- AND there are always good 7/11 convenience stores (Sevens carry salmon onigiri that makes for the perfect stomach safe snack IMHO). But…
- Most savory dishes have fish sauce and I imagine it’s difficult to be a vegetarian, let alone a vegan or kosher.
- Fancy places can probably take diet into account but I didn’t (wouldn’t) bother to eat that way in Thailand.
- Statistically, most dishes are grilled or stewed/soupy.
- Like in many Asian cultures fancy food usually means seafood.
14. Unexpected protein situation
- The default protein is pork or fish.
- There was much less tofu and chicken than I expected.
- There’s tons of seafood and squid is particularly popular.
- Being a pescatarian is probably very easy.
15. It is spicy, yes it is
Yes most Thai dishes are more spicy than an average American, Antipodean, or European likes/tolerates. YES, it is.
If you want less spicy, go for fast food or Chinese stuff.
Mai peet (may pit) means no chili, but does it really…? They are used to farang asking for not spicy but also, they like to test us. I became a kind of party trick because I like spicy food so much and eat it with gusto.
16. Drinks are sweet & iced
Most drinks are VERY sweet and iced by default. If you need unsweetened caffeine get an “Americano, mai whaan” (no sweet) from a chain cafe like Starbucks or Amazon, or a boutique cafe that caters to tourists. Chaa (tea) is commonly sweetened. I found it impossible to find without sugar, so I didn’t drink it there.
17. Diet soda is EVERYWHERE
Many soft drinks have “low sugar” or are “lite” (stevia), especially at fast food places and at restaurants. Unless you like this, I advice you to AVOID ordering soda.
18. Bangkok has the largest Chinese immigrant community in the world
There’s a lot more Chinese influence to the food there than you expect. Many dishes contain soy sauce, five spice, etc..
Tips for being a digital nomad in Bangkok
Actually it’s kinda great.
19. Bangkok has a robust cafe culture.
Cafes are full of lovely AC and lots of people parked with computers. There’s also fantastic malls with more lovely cafes and food courts that make for equally great writing environments.
20. Bangkok has good connectivity
There’s decently fast internet and great cell coverage. My phone worked better in Bangkok than it does at home!
21. Speaking English
English is somewhat spoken and understood amongst youngsters and tourist tangential industries. But not particularly well. At the very least, slow down when you speak and enunciate clearly!
A grasp of very basic Thai and Thai formalities is a good idea. I would call it a moral imperative as a visitor. They are nice about you trying Thai (unlike France, or, frankly, American). You owe it to them to try. You’re visiting their culture, after all. I included a list of my most used phrases at the bottom of this post.
In Bangkok English is the most used 2nd language. This is not because English speakers make up the bulk of tourism there. Tourists are most commonly from: Malaysia, China, Korea, India, and Russia, in that order. No, English is spoken because it is the most common shared SECOND language of visitors.
Where we stayed in Bangkok (embassy district) the assumption around farang (western appearing foreigners) is that we were Northern European (Scandinavian or Germanic), Australian, or Canadian before British or American.
22. Cost of living
The cost of living in terms of food, rent, and utilities is cheap, certainly by comparison to the USA.
Bangkok, if you can take the heat, is a very walkable city and public transport is also inexpensive and easy to use.
23. Other thoughts on Bangkok
It’s pretty safe and feels that way.
There’s no major drug or alcohol culture, and least not in the parts of the city I frequented. I never got that “bars are out, feels erratic and dangerous.” Although it is still a large city (about the size of Paris), one should always be cautious of physical and sexual assault, especially at night.
The most common types of crime are petty theft and scams targeting tourists.
24. Don’t ride a motorcycle, you numbnuts
Vehicle accidents are frequent and common.
Vespa accidents are deadly.
Thailand is the world’s deadliest country for motorcyclists.
I spent 20 years riding a motorcycle and would never get on one in Thailand.
Please know that you really do take your life in your hands if you vespa in Bangkok. Your odds on an accident if you choose to rent & ride are very high. It’s your funeral (or bankruptcy). At least make sure you let everyone know you’re an organ donor. You are an organ donor, right? They don’t call ’em biker bones for nothing.
Don’t assume your health insurance coverage extends to something so stupid as riding a motorcycle in a foreign country when you have neither a motorcycle license nor an international driver’s license, either.
25. Speaking of.. medical & legal stuff!
I have a storied history of visiting a hospital in most countries I frequent. I didn’t get that privilege(?) in Thailand but I looked it up just in case. You should do the same, also check your health insurance and what aspects of travel it covers.
Don’t forget to update your travel vaccs a few months ahead of time, either.
The medical system in Thailand is robust, and quite good, especially in and around major cities. But it is private, so it can get VERY expensive.
FYI, your legal rights and rights to representation are not the same in Thailand as in Europe or the USA. Cops don’t work the same way, either.
Author events & such
I visited Book Expo Thailand 2023. It happens once a year usually in October.
It felt very like Book Expo America (BEA) only everything was in Thai and the food is 1000x better.
It’s free to the general public and very popular, especially with college and high school students, so I suggest visiting during school hours to avoid the crowds.
- 10 Minute History of Thailand (YouTube)
- The Bangkok Podcast – run by (and for) veteran expats living in Bangkok
- Thai Expat Daily Podcast – news about the politics and activities in Thailand
- My basic language lessons playlist on YouTube
Related to this post?
I’m just spelling the Thai words a way I hope makes them easier to pronounce, but you need to hear them in Thai to understand fully how they are said.
Know this: Thai has 5 tones. 5! It’s really hard to hear the difference much less pronounce it.
Thai has polite particles – learn them & use them
- kha (for female identified persons)
- krap/kap (for male identified persons)
- for gender neutral you can try ja or ha but that’s a little rude in a foreigner, so you probably should pick kha/krap if you can
Stick your polite particle on the end of every single sentence you utter. You can think of Thai particles as vital spoken punctuation. It’s very rude not to use one.
You can also use the kha/krap particles alone for confirmation and positive acknowledgement.
I’ll be typing the rest of these with the kha so you can see the full sentences and because that’s what I use.
Foundational grammar & sounds
Thai is an analytic language (so word order is key). Word meaning is impacted by modifiers not affixes, no conjugations or declensions! Yay! Emphasis (for adjectives) and plural (for nouns) is usually done by repeating the word.
e.g. alloy = yummy, alloy alloy = delicious! dek = a child, dek dek = children.
You can also add the word marr to the ends of things (very, a lot), alloy marr = very yummy.
Agreement is usually expressed by using the same verb back with a positive modifier or polite particle, (instead of just saying “yes”)
e.g. “poot pa sa Thai mai kha” = do you speak Thai?
can be answered with “mai poot kha” = no I don’t speak it.
Poot being the verb. The full polite answer would be: poot Thai mai dai (I can’t speak Thai) but you can just use the simple negative: mai poot kha.
mai = the POWER word
- sticking it in front of things usually negates
- sticking it behind usually queries
- sabai dii mai kha = how are you? (literally “are you feeling good or bad?”)
- sabai dii kha = I’m fine, it’s fine, all good, no worries (no mai anymore)
- mai dii = not good – see how mai is now at the beginning?
- mai sabai dii = not feeling good (AKA I’m sick or unwell)
There are dozens of Thai pronouns – dozens – it’s complicated.
If you need a pronoun just use:
- khun for you and
- your own name for I,
but you can get by without any pronouns on a short trip.
10 most used basic Thai phrases!
- sah’wa di kha – hello formal greeting + nice smile and a nod, foreigners do not need to wai nor should you expect Thai people to wai to you, although if you are meeting family… yeah
- ah neee kha = this thing here (while pointing at food or some other purchase) to be very polite add a na e.g. “ah nee na kha” acts kinda like please, na is the entreaty particle
- hong naam na kha = bathroom please? (naam = water, so if you want it to drink at a food place, just say naam kha)
- khor puun kha = thank you (remember marr = modifier for very so if you really feel it, stick that in: khor puun marr kha = thank you so very much)
- khor tord kha = sorry, excuse me
- mai poot Thai kha = I don’t speak Thai
- khao jai kha = I get it, I understand & mai khao jai kha = I don’t understand
- okay kha = yup or just use kha/krap alone is easiest for confirmation
- mai aow! = no, please don’t, or stop that
- chawp kha = I like it, chawp mahr kha (I like it a lot) & mai chawp kah = I don’t like it
10 next most used basic Thai phrases
- dai mai kha = may I? or can I do/have/touch the thing?
- dai kha = active yes, I/you/we/they = yes I’m able to do the thing
- chai kha = passive yes, that is the truth/reality
- mai chai = you lie, that’s not true at all, strong language
- mai dee = not good
- mai dai = I can’t or you shouldn’t, strong language
- ghuh dai = informal, let’s do it
- ah-lie kha = what?
- may beh lai kha (technically mai bpen rai) = never mind, it’s okay, forget about it, you can add..
- sabai dii kha on the end of the above phrase. Basically that means, don’t worry about it, I’m good, everything is fine
Here are a couple of videos with people saying these words out loud. Be warned the Australian girl’s pronunciation is pretty terrible.
- Travel in Thailand? Simple useful phrases to help you survive
- 10 Simple Words & Phrases to Travel Thailand with!
Here’s some random notes Author Gail took while sitting in this temple…
The opulence of the Chinese influenced temples in particular made me think a lot about color and the love humans have for it, both now and in the past. For example, a lot of people don’t know that most of the ancient Greek marble statues were brightly painted.
Perhaps religion and nation states use it as a tool overwhelm ones senses with garishness but it is still difficult to shake off the instinctive feeling of awe engender not just by the buildings and structures, but by the color that is applied to them.
Naturally this made me think about the dome, and the divinity, and how I used the brutality of color for spiritual conversion of a different kind in my recent sci-fi series, Tinkered Starsong.
Then again perhaps I’ve been sitting too long on opulent gold bench.Tags: 20 Minute Delay Podcast