It took 27 years, but I finally traveled outside of North America! Before this, my roster was limited to Hawaii, the West Coast, Kentucky, Vegas, and Burning Man. So as you might imagine, international travel both excited and terrified me. Terrified in the sense of "Do I need to get a travel visa?! Do I need a voltage converter to use their electricity?!?! Will my phone work over there or do I need to get a new SIM card/phone entirely?!?!" The more research I did, the more I learned I didn't know...
In all the travel I had done before this trip, I was far from a minimalist. My packing strategy was to pack everything I could possibly need, and then some. From cuticle trimmers to ten pairs of socks. Nothing was left behind. This time around, however, I applied my minimalist principles to everything.
[Scroll to the bottom of this page for the key points from this post.]
Thailand is a beautiful country tucked away in Southeast Asia. It's known for great street food and smiles. Since it is a primarily Buddhist country, temples and Buddhas can be found everywhere. Tourism accounts for up to 20% of the country's GDP, so travelers are welcome with open arms pretty much everywhere. And because of this, most Thais know at least a little English as well. Outside of the cities, monkeys roam and elephants take mud baths with tourists. So without further ado, let's start from the beginning.
Want to travel to Thailand in six months? Go to a travel clinic tomorrow! This is the one thing I overlooked until it was a bit too late. I ended up scheduling an appointment six days before my flight, which is a lot shorter than most vaccinations take to become completely effective. Luckily I already had my Hep A/B done earlier, so I ended up just getting the Typhoid shot. As a rule of thumb, earlier is always better. Some vaccinations take effect very quickly, but others take up to a month or longer because they take multiple doses. To get an idea what you might need, just google '<country> vaccinations.' I ended up doing hours of research just to have the travel doctor tell me exactly what to do, which was a welcome reassurance.
When going through any airport in the United States, you've probably witnessed or been randomly selected to go through the TSA Precheck line. In this exclusive line you can fly through security without even taking off you shoes. Such a luxury. And if you've done any international travel, you're familiar with the cumbersome customs process. Thankfully, there's a way to circumvent the customs lines while getting into the TSA Precheck line every time. It's called Global Entry and it only costs $100 for a five-year pass. If this interests you, check out my in-depth article on Global Entry (along with other travel programs for getting into Canada and Mexico faster).
This is a polarizing topic for travelers. Some like to wing it and fly by the seat of their pants while others prefer to schedule everything down to the hour. No matter where you fit, it pays to do your research. First, I would highly recommend picking up a physical copy of the Lonely Planet for your destination country. The Lonely Planet series is a well-researched bible for many of the world's top travel destinations. When reading through it, however, be advised that any places it recommends will probably have a higher percentage of tourists than the unlisted counterparts. It's a bit of a paradox, really, recommending 'off the beaten path' spots to tourists, thus turning them into tourist attractions.
Other than printed publications, the internet is your friend. You can get really specific and search for 'minimalist packing for Thailand' or 'best hip bars in Bangkok.' But to get an even finer-tuned result, hop on the ole Facebook and ask your friends! When you start getting some replies on your post, message those people directly to learn even more.
Even with the wealth of knowledge on the internet, it's hard to really understand international phone service. With T-Mobile, I was able to continue using my normal phone number in Thailand with no extra charges for data or text and phone calls were $0.20/minute. The only catch was that the data was not high speed. I could have purchased a high-speed pass for a number of days with a few gigabytes of high speed data, but the slow speeds worked well enough. I could still pull up Google Maps to find directions without waiting more than 10 seconds for it to load.
My girlfriend, however, is on Sprint, so the process was entirely different. When we arrived in Bangkok we found a SIM card kiosk at the airport and paid around $20 for two weeks with 4 gigabytes of data. To put that into perspective, I use less than 0.5 gigabytes of data per month. But I am a very deliberate consumer of mobile data. To learn how to cut your mobile data use substantially, read my handy guide titled Slash Your Mobile Data Usage by 90% Today. The key points of that post are to always be connected to wifi and to postpone your heavy data use (streaming video, browsing Facebook, and installing apps) to when you're back in a wifi umbrella.
Credit Cards + Cash
Thailand is in no way a credit card country. Most places you'll end up won't accept credit cards at all, so cash is definitely king. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't bring some plastic. I brought a debit card with me at all times to withdraw $150 every few days from the ATMs. There's always a balance between ATM fees and not wanting to tote around a grand's worth of baht (Thailand's currency). In addition to the debit card, I had a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. This card is the traveler's go-to credit card. You get X2 points for all dining and travel, no foreign transaction fees, and 50,000 points (about $500) after spending $4,000 in the first three months.
To get into Thailand, your passport has to be valid for another six months after your entry into Thailand. So if your passport expires soon, doesn't exist, or is extremely weathered, it might be time to get a fresh one. Also make sure that you have a blank page or two for more stamps!
As vacations approach, it's always hard to estimate all the expenses you'll incur. For our trip, we didn't book any transportation or lodging past the first three days. We didn't know how much we'd spend on food or how many excursions we wanted to go on. For us, the best way to come to a reasonable budget goal was to add up all the expected costs.
- Round trip flight - $800
- Average nightly room - $20 to $30
- Daily food budget - $10 to $30
- Daily Local transportation - $5 to $10
- In-country trains/busses/flights - $200 to $500
- Shopping (because you'll need to pick up something or another) - $100+
The list goes on, but you get the idea. Depending on how much you want to rough it, you could probably cut those numbers in half or easily double them. Some nights we stayed at unnecessarily nice bungalows and once bought a meal for $15 each! The fifteen dollar meal was on par to what you'd pay over $100 in the states for. So incredibly delicious. But I digress.
If you want an automated breakdown of average travelers' costs, check out Budget Your Trip. It's a website that has travel budget estimations based on actual user data. If you want to get really precise about your budget, you can create an account and track your own travel spendings while you're away, but if you're like me, that's an extra responsibility that will immediately get lost by the wayside.
As a minimalist, this was the most exciting and nerve-racking part of planning. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I'm used to filling an entire rolling piece of luggage for a week of travel. Every day of travel required one clean pair of socks and underwear. Every other day needed a clean shirt. Then a pair of pants or two. Shorts. Two pairs of shoes. The list goes on. And all this was not an effect of minimalism, but of an unnecessary desire for fresh, clean clothes every day of the trip.
But this time around I let my minimalist tendencies take over. Knowing I would be away for 16+ days required me to rethink my travel habits. I knew I would have to end up washing clothes at some point, so why not wash clothes every 2-3 days? Not all my clothes, mind you, but at least the socks and underwear. What I ended up with was a very minimalist wardrobe with the pretense of frequent sink washings. Basically, it looked like this:
- 1 short sleeve shirt
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- 1 tank top
- 1 pair of pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 3 pairs of socks
- 3 pairs of underwear
There were a few other miscellaneous clothing items, but that was my core wardrobe for the entire trip. With normal wear, I only ended up having to wash anything every 2-3 days. And the washing was quick and simple: I just poured some Dr Bronner's soap into a full sink then let the articles of clothing soak for an hour. Once soaked, they were rung out and hung to dry.
There is obviously a lot more that I packed, but I'm saving that for the next post where I'll list out my entire packing list so you can see all the fun travel tech that can help lighten the load. In the end, I fit all of my stuff into a 27 liter Tortuga Air backpack that weighed around 18 lbs total.
Thailand is hot. And humid. I did not realize the weight of those facts while preparing for this trip. I decided to only bring a pair of waterproof leather Timberland shoes on the plane with the hope of finding a perfect sandal while we were there. While those Timberlands have since become my favorite shoe ever, they were not ideal for 90 degree weather. So the sandal hunt began. After our plane landed in Bangkok, we went straight to the closest mall to pick up some proper footwear. After a half hour of searching, we came across a shoe store that sold those strappy sandals you see backpackers wearing all the time. These turned out to be a lifesaver. Not only were they cool, but every day I wore those meant one less pair of socks to wash. And later in the week we went on a kayaking tour through the jungles of Northern Thailand. At one point we came across a fallen tree and had to get out of our kayaks and toss the kayaks over the tree as we swam under. Many of the other tourist kayakers' flip flops slipped off and comically floated down river as my strappy sandals clung tight in the muddy riverbed.
As soon as we knew our travel dates, we booked a round trip ticket in and out of Bangkok. Since Bangkok is the biggest city in Thailand, we figured flying in and out of it would be the cheapest and easiest. This was probably true, but it restricted our travel plans for the end of our trip. If we didn't have our return flight booked, we would have had the option to travel further from Bangkok, as far as Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam.
When looking for a flight, I usually check on TripAdvisor first, to get an idea of the flight times and durations. From there I check on the airline's site to see if it's any cheaper to book it directly. Once we were in Thailand, we started using Skyscanner to find in-country flights for cheap.
Agoda. If you're preparing for a trip to Southeast Asia, you will undoubtedly come across Agoda. Somehow they have made a hotel website feel like the cute, approachable Airbnb. Their secret sauce is their massive archive of user reviews. Some hotels in Bangkok have over 10,000 user reviews! Because of all this data, you can make an informed decision easily. They also have special Agoda Insider Deals which appear to be surplus rooms that hotels are trying to book on the cheap. If you can be flexible with the exact location you want to stay at, you can also choose an Agoda Secret Deal in a neighborhood and they'll pick a hotel for you at up to a 50% discount! The only catch is that you don't know the exact location in that neighborhood until you book the ticket.
When it comes to actually booking a hotel, guesthouse, or hostel, I would recommend getting no more than two nights there. When we got to Bangkok, we had booked our first place for three consecutive nights; after two nights, we wished we could have hopped over to a different part of town to spend that third night. It's a lot easier to book one more night than to cancel a night.
Once we left Bangkok, however, our booking tactics became a lot looser. Guest houses are available all over Thailand on the cheap. The main difference between a guest house and a hotel is that guest houses are generally cheaper, more homely (in a good way, usually), and often family run. You still get your own room with a key and most come with a private bathroom.
Nothing could have prepared me for the constant barrage of wet hot heat. Every day hit 90 degrees with humidity ranging from 50% to 75%. This means the moment you step out of an air conditioned building, you're sweating and on the brink of death. Even during the coldest hour of night the temperature still sat at a heavy 75 degrees. Had I understood this, I would have found an ultralite pair of pants to replace my jeans before leaving the states.
In Thailand, expect to take every form of transportation man has ever invented. In our two weeks, we utilized airplanes, taxis, tuk-tuks, trains, mopeds, feet, skytrains, 'subways,' bicycles, kayaks, the back of pickup trucks, and busses. If you're feeling adventurous, I highly recommend renting a moped in a less dense part of Thailand. We rented one down south on Koh Lanta and it was one of the more memorable experiences of the trip. In part because we got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere during a rainstorm. But it only costs about six dollars per day plus gas, so you can get around on the cheap. If you're nervous about renting a motorized vehicle, bicycles are fun too; just be aware of the hot hot heat. We rented bikes in Ayutthaya and melted into pools of sweat by the day's end.
The biggest mystery of them all! In Thailand you will come across two main kinds of toilets. The standard Western toilet, and the squatter. The Western toilet is what you're familiar with; you sit on a seat and do your business. But instead of toilet paper, you're given a hose with a kitchen sink spray nozzle on the end, affectionately called the 'bum gun.' Once finished with your business, you take this bum gun, aim it at your escape hatch, and get spraying. If it's your first time, it comes as a bit of a shock. Depending on the angle of spray and volume/strength of the jet, many different emotions may sweep across you. If all of this seems too gross or invasive, I would still recommend practicing in your first hotel room. There will be times when you run out of your personal stash of toilet paper and will have to rely on the bum gun. Embrace it.
Now the squatter, on the other hand, I'm not as experienced with. Luckily I timed my internal processes in a way that didn't require the use of them, but I still saw them around. They are simply a porcelain standing platform with a hole in the middle. Next to them is usually a small reservoir of water with a bowl in it. Once you're done, you take the bowl and pour water into the hole, manually flushing it. The personal cleaning process here is still a mystery to me, though, as the squatters usually don't include a bum gun.
Outlets and Power
Hours of research and I still couldn't get a grasp on this before the trip. I'll try to summarize my findings here. Thailand outlets spit out 220 volts while the United States uses 110 volts. Luckily, phone chargers and camera battery chargers are built to handle this. All you need is this adapter to go from our flat prongs to their round prongs. If you plan on bringing anything that requires serious juice like a hair dryer or blender, you'll need to look into a voltage converter. These are bulkier little boxes that convert your voltage from 220v to 110v. But as you'll notice, these things get cumbersome in a hurry.
The native tongue in Thailand is Thai, but most people there know at least elementary English. Because of this, you can easily get by by only speaking English, but I wouldn't recommend it. Before your trip, try to learn at least half a dozen phrases. Then while you're there, try to learn a half dozen more. Every time that we said anything in Thai other than the common "hello" or "thank you," we were treated with a noticeable amount of extra respect. It showed them that we took the extra time to learn a bit more about their language and culture. Here's what we learned:
- How are you?
- Thank you
- Very delicious
- Where is the toilet?
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
- Very cute (when talking about a kid or animal)
- What is your name?
- My name is...
Thailand is not like the United States. There's not an MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) listed on every product in every store. That being said, you should use your own judgement and instincts when deciding if to barter at all. Are you buying a t-shirt from a market? Sure, barter it down 20%. Are you getting into a tuk-tuk? Absolutely barter up to 50%. Are you buying a train ticket or paying for a meal in a restaurant? Maybe hold off on the bartering.
If you're feeling crafty, the best technique is to come in low, raise a little bit, then walk away if they don't agree to it. As long as you're within their comfort zone, they'll call at you and agree to your price. It definitely feels weird trying to lowball people, but they do seem to hike up prices for tourists, so be on high alert.
Some websites list dozens and dozens of rules to abide by, but when it comes down to it, there are just a handful of things to keep in mind. The first, and probably most important rule is all about feet. Feet are seen as the lowest and dirtiest part of our bodies. Because of this, the Thai version of the middle finger is to show someone the bottom of your feet. So when you're sitting waiting for the bus or lounging in a hut, try not to cross your legs to point your sole willy nilly around the room. This also applies to your proximity to a Buddha statue. To point your feet at a Buddha is to show it complete disrespect. So when entering a temple, don't sit with your feet facing the Buddha. The second rule, also about feet, has to do with taking off your shoes. When entering a home, some temples, and guest houses, you're expected to take off your shoes and leave them at the front door area. You'll get the hang of this quickly when you start noticing pairs of shoes outside of certain doorways.
Food and Water
If you fly right into Bangkok, you will be blown away at the density of food carts. Literally dozens of little carts can be found on every street. Then every few blocks there's a whole little market full of more food and shopping. The beauty of these food carts is the cost and variety. While walking to any destination, you can pick up a full meal of small plates on your way. A stick of meat here. A donut thing there. A plate of phat si-io there. It's worth trying out all the different flavors you can find. And if you're really feeling daring, grab a scorpion on a stick. Once it's in your mouth it just feels like a scorpion-shaped potato chip. Easy!
Now the water is a different story. Some travelers will warn you about getting near any foods or drinks that contain a single drop of water. This fear goes as far as not eating any fresh food that has been rinsed with water or drinking any drinks that have ice in them. While I agree that you should avoid drinking tap water, I wouldn't be as fearful/stubborn as some. A few days into the trip I ordered a coffee drink and it was filled to the brim with ice. I tried to return it and ask for no ice, but I was refused. From then on, I just took what I was given. Throughout the trip I didn't really get affected by the water. I decided to take the small risk in order to not be a fearful traveler that refused to live like the locals.
The Key Points
- Get your vaccinations at least a month ahead of time.
- Sign up for Global Entry to skip security and customs lines.
- Buy a Lonely Planet book, do your research, understand the culture.
- T-Mobile works. Verizon and AT&T work with an added plan. Sprint...just get a different SIM card.
- Use ATMs to get cash. Use Chase Sapphire Preferred when possible.
- Make sure your passport is valid for 6+ months past your trip.
- Use Budget Your Trip to estimate travel costs.
- Pack light, get used to sink-washing socks and underwear.
- Bring shoes for the weather and your activity level.
- Only book a one-way flight to keep your exit destination flexible.
- Book hotels with Agoda, find the rest on foot.
- Never book more than two nights to stay flexible.
- Thailand is hot. Pack accordingly.
- Get comfortable with all varieties of transportation.
- Practice with the bum gun at your first hotel.
- iPhone and camera chargers work, just bring an adapter (not a converter).
- Learn some phrases in the native tongue! You'll get more respect.
- Barter with respect, don't be an ass.
- Don't show the bottom of your feet to anyone, especially Buddha.
- Try any and all of the food, but don't drink the tap water.