A write up from one of my friends, "Sharkbait" about backpacking in Thailand, but a fair amount of the information is good for any general backpacking/traveling trip -> The following recommendations are based on personal experience and are heavily biased towards my personal tastes. I’m not a fan of big cities, crowded streets, or fancy shopping malls but I’ll endure them. I’m cheap, but I’m not afraid to spend money when required. Most of all, I have an understanding of myself. Bring this understanding with you and your travel experiences will always be good. Backpacking in another country is a book with blank pages waiting for YOU to fill them with memories. The trip is yours; do what is comfortable, exciting and interesting to you. Use my comments as a starting point.
Get yourself a good guide book. I like the Lonely Planet series, but there are many others. The important thing is not the book you get, but that you read up on your destination(s) and have some idea of where you want to go and what you want to do. If you can’t decide from the book, it’s OK to wait until you get there. Bring the book with you, or a copy of the relevant pages of the book. You’re going to need to reference it when you’re there. Talk to other travelers and ask about their experiences. Be ready to change your plans if something better comes along.
No rolling suitcases! One carry on backpack and 1 small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you. Put all your belongings in these 2 bags. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go. In the tropics it’s easy to travel light. I usually bring a light jacket, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of pants, one or 2 pairs of socks, 1 shirt with a collar, 4 or 5 t-shirts and underwear. You will need to bring a towel (REI has a great travel towel which takes up almost no room at all), and all your toiletries (soap, comb, toothbrush/toothpaste, etc). If you are staying in cheap hostels, an important thing to bring is a sleep sack. It’s basically a sleeping bag that’s made out of a sheet. Mine is silk and compresses down to the size of a small potato. It was expensive ($50) but worth it for the space savings. The cheap cotton ones are the size of a hard cover book (think “War and Peace”). Backpacker hostels don’t usually provide linens. Finally, bring a small, light daypack to carry your water bottle, clothing, sunglasses, camera, hat, first aid kit, etc., on your daily excursions. I recently switched over to the REI Flash 18 pack, and I love it.
As for electronics, it is best to have a wi-fi enabled smart phone or tablet. I also recommend renting a cell phone when you arrive. I’ve never rented a phone before so I don’t really know how it works. I think you can get one from the airport or from a local establishment around the area that you’re staying in.
Other things to bring – camera, small flashlight, paper and pencil, small roll of duct tape (5 ft will do), a hat, a small roll of TP, some small trinkets to give away. If you’re doing your own laundry, clothes line and powdered detergent. Bring sunscreen. You will probably need it the first couple days you’re there. The sun is pretty strong at all times of the year. A small travel umbrella is rapidly making its way up my priority list. Very useful in the sudden tropical down pour, as protection from the hot afternoon sun, and for the ladies, as cover for those roadside stops where the “facilities” is a tree.
Medication/First aid – always have a small first aid kit with you. Just the basics is good enough: band aids of various sizes, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic ointment/creams. Bring some pain pills – acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen; whatever is your drug of choice, but avoid bringing controlled substances. Some anti-diarrhea medication might be useful. Check for Lomotil or one of its generic equivalents at the local pharmacy. I’ve never had to use it before, but better to be safe than sorry. Also, drugs are readily available over there for whatever ails you.
In the tropics, polyester is king! Cotton is a fast way to the world of misery. T-shirts and shorts will be your daily uniform. Backpacking for 10 days will require that you do some laundry. If you’re cheap, do it yourself in your hotel room. Alternatively, there are tons of laundry places around which will clean and dry your clothes. They charge by the kilo and I believe it is a 24-hour turnaround. If you have cotton clothing to wash, just pay someone else to do it. Cotton will never dry. FWIW, I try to carry 5 days of clothing with me in the tropics. Keep in mind that I’m a guy and I’m not opposed to re-wearing something. YMMV.
Shoes – comfortable walking shoes is a must. Also bring a pair of sandals, like Tevas. I spent most of my time in sandals, so make sure you don’t bring a pair of flip flops from the dollar store. Although, having a pair of disposable flip flops will make walking into the bathroom a more pleasant experience, so bring them for that purpose, or buy a pair when you’re there. I’ve been toying with the idea of replacing my shoes and sandals with those Keen water shoes. Two birds, one stone! I haven’t tested it out yet, so I have no real data on the concept. Consider it if you already have a comfortable pair of Keens.
When I was in Bangkok, I stayed in the main backpacker district called Banglamphu, in an area around Khao San Road. It's cheap, it's noisy, it's congested, but it’s central to all the big tourist attractions. The alley ways around the road are packed with places to stay. Before you go, you should decide what you're willing to put up with: 1) do you want a shared (dorm) or private room; 2) do you want A/C or not; 3) do you want a shared bathroom. Personally, I’m getting too old and grouchy to share, so I will pay for a private room with a bathroom. I can handle heat well, so I won’t pay for A/C. All rooms will have a fan and that’s enough for me.
Here are a couple of websites to start looking for lodging:
Some places will have airport pickup and drop offs. The key is to stay somewhere close to the main tourist destinations, or close to public transportation hubs (bus, train, light rail terminals).
Always buy bottled water from a reputable source: supermarket, grocery store, etc. I usually bring a water bottle with me and then buy water by the gallons over there. Try to avoid buying small bottles of water in plastic containers. Plastic waste is a huge problem and tourists are the biggest contributor to that problem. However, never drink tap water!
Eat meals at local establishments. I usually like to eat street food because I can watch them cook my food. Eating at restaurants, where food is cooked in the kitchen, outside of your view, can be risky. But eating at restaurants is unavoidable, so ask around for good places to eat. People love to talk about that. Try to pick restaurants that are always crowded. An empty restaurant means food has been sitting around for a long time; bad news for the delicate American digestive tract. As a general rule, avoid raw vegies. I also take a pass on most dairy products. The most dangerous situation is the one you’re not expecting, like adding cream to your coffee at Starbucks. Ask me how I know about that……
Protect your passports! Where you go, your passport goes too. Last I heard, the going rate on the black market for a stolen US passport was $10k. Personally, I never leave valuable with the hotel “safe”. It’s not particularly safe! Make Xerox copies of your passport and keep them with you. Also keep an electronic copy of your passport and relevant contacts in a web based email account. In the event that you lose everything, you can always pull up your email and have access to the information.
Watch each other’s belongings. Never leave a bag unattended in public. Bring several locks. The small 3 dial combo locks are great. Lock your backpack when you’re walking around on the street. Lock your main backpack with all your other valuables in your room when you’re out for the day.
Scams/Cons – this is something you need to watch out for. They usually start out with someone coming up to you on the street asking where you’re going, then telling you it’s closed for the day. Then they’ll offer you something else. Most scams are pretty obvious, so just season what others say with a healthy dose of skepticism. Words like “free” or “guaranteed” are often the first signs of a scam. Just smile and say no thank you. Strange thing about that culture – everyone always smiles and is very nice, even when they’re arguing. One thing to always keep in mind, the Thai people are generally very kind and there are more good people than bad. Don’t lose sight of that because you’re too busy watching out for the con artist.
Pickpockets – yep, you gotta watch out for this! Carry money and passports on your person, not in your backpack. Zippers on pockets work really well. Those money belts are good, but terribly uncomfortable in tropical environments.
Violence – not something you generally need to worry about over there. Obviously, you shouldn’t walk down a lonely, dark and narrow alley in the middle of the night. As long as you stick to the major tourist areas, violence is very unlikely.
Political Demonstrations – No matter what your political affiliation or beliefs, don’t be stupid enough to get involved with other people’s politics. Last I heard (which was 9 months ago) the military has taken over the country. It’s more stable since they took over so things will be better for the tourist.
If the following applies to you, then backpacking is probably not going to be your cup of tea: Leave your bling at home; Don’t flash your cash; No need to talk about how rich and important you are. Nobody cares about these things except the thieves.
Exchange a hundred bucks at the airport when you arrive. You’ll get killed on the exchange rate, but there’s really no choice. Go to banks and money changers after you settle down to exchange more money. Look around to see who give you the best rate. The person who is best at doing math does the transaction; the other person ignores the entire exchange of money, and instead watches for potential threats, i.e. becomes the body guard. Just turn and look around for anything strange or person watching you. The act of doing that will discourage most crooks from trying anything stupid. Don’t look like an easy target, and they’ll pass you up like the plague. Please secure all your money before you leave the establishment.
Because I tend to lean towards paranoia sometimes, I keep a hundred dollars in cash somewhere odd like in my shoe. In the very unlikely even that I lose everything, I still might have my shoes and that hundred bucks as a lifeline. Like I said, a bit paranoid.
Paying and Bargaining – when buying souvenirs from stalls on the street, you’ll need to bargain hard. Start with 50 to 75 percent off the asking price and negotiate from there. Many other prices can be negotiated. I’ve asked for discounts on a room because I was staying for more than 1 day and I was paying cash. I’ve negotiated so hard for some things that I felt bad after the deal was done. Just remember, they won’t sell it if they’re not going to make any money. Walk away from any deal that you don’t like; another deal is waiting for you just around the corner. Resist the temptation to make big purchases while traveling. You are NOT going to be one the lucky person to see this unique gemstone, expensive artwork, rare item, etc. They’re all fake. If you still want it, pay accordingly.
Book your tours when you get there. There are zillions of little kiosks which book day tours for all the tourist sites. Book whatever you feel like the day before or a couple days before you want to go. Things to ask before booking: Where’s the pickup point? How many people going? Do not book any tours from here (USA), as you will pay a HUGE premium.
Things to do in Bangkok – I recommend spending 3 or 4 nights here.
The Grand Palace, Wat Phu, and other temples (wats) in the area - spend the entire day here. Most are within walking distance of each other. Temples in Thailand are like churches in Europe. One or 2 days of this and they all start looking the same.
Ride one of the long-tailed river boats.
Take a day trip to Kanchanaburi. It’s the historical location of the “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”. Watch the movie before you go. If you’re not into World War II history, this might not be as interesting for you.
Take a ride in a tuk tuk. It's like riding a rollercoaster through the streets of bangkok. Hold on tight and make sure your health insurance is up to date!
You will find many other things to do at the local tour kiosks/travel agents, and especially by talking to other travellers. There are always more things to do than time to do them.
Things to do in Phuket – I recommend spending the rest of your trip here.
You should fly here from Bangkok, so set up the flights before you leave.
Many islands to go to here. After you get into town, go to one of the many tour kiosks/travel agents, and sign up for one of the day trips. Pick whatever strikes your fancy. James Bond Island (Khao Phing Kan in Phang Nga Bay) was neat. You get to see the island in the movie “Man with the Golden Gun”. Consider taking a cooking class. The beach – if you’re into old, fat European men wearing G-strings, this is your heaven. Otherwise, stick to walks on the beach at sunset. The beach faces west, and tropical sunsets are fantastic. You should definitely get a massage on the beach. As massages go, it’s not very good, but you simply can’t beat the ambiance. For a really good massage/facial/spa experience, you need to find one of the establishments off the beach. Lots of them around in the city. If you scuba dive, this is the place to do it. Take a day trip to an island if you’re interested in snorkeling. Eat at least one good (read: expensive) meal. I recommend having fresh lobster from a beach-side restaurant on your last night. Watch the sunset and enjoy the warm ocean breeze as you chow down the best tasting lobster ever. Not a bad way to end a trip!
Backpacking through foreign countries is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work and can be downright scary! Not knowing where you’re going to stay from day to day, how to get from one place to the other, or even how to speak the language is a daunting experience. I’m always “afraid” before I go, but I console myself in the knowledge that I have a safety net. I carry a credit card with a huge limit and a bank account to support it! Money can buy me out of almost any trouble I get into. I never have to worry about sleeping on the street or going hungry. Worst case scenario is that I’ll check myself into a 5 or 6 star hotel, have room service bring food to my door, and tell the concierge to book all my tours. With backup like that, there’s no need to worry; it’s time to go out, see the world, and experience life. #backpacking #thailand #traveltips