1) Leave your rolly luggage at home.
Wear a backpack and only fill it ⅔ full. You will shop – if not for yourself, for your friends. Most of all, make sure that your bag is carry-on compliant. When you're hopping flights, trains, river boats, etc., you'll thank me later that you weren't trying to roll your massive clunky suitcase down an almost-rotted Thai wood pier. You’re welcome.
2) Buy an umbrella upon arrival.
It’s either rain or shine there, with occasional in-betweens. And usually hot (in the best possible tropical way, of course). You will happily appreciate your small umbrella at some point.
3) Eat street food.
Do not live in the paranoia that you "will get sick." I ate copious amounts of appetizing street food from local vendors for two solid weeks before obtaining the bubble guts...which I got from eating at an overpriced Italian restaurant.
Bring hand sanitizer or wipes, and use un-sparingly. There is not often an opportunity to wash your hands.
4) Prep your thigh muscles...
For squat toilets. This is what you will experience in the majority of the country. Also, wash your bum! That’s what that mysterious spray hose in the corner is for. Only use TP to dry if there is any; otherwise do what I charmingly termed the "shakedown" to remove any excessive droplets.
(P.S., please do not put TP in the squat, that’s just bad manners and won't fly in their waste system.)
5) Get a two-hour traditional massage.
Life-changing body work, truly. They bathe your feet before the massage and you are stretched, pushed, pounded on and ultimately relaxed. This ancient technique gets a solid 10. You can get a one-hour traditional in the city areas for about $6. Islands and resort areas will cost near 3x that.
6) Go to the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok.
Buy those ultra-comfy Thai fisherman pants that are so cozy, they've seriously impacted my ability to return to the dating scene. See a variety of exotic and domestic (caged) animals. It's a great spot to learn bargaining skills, but most items are priced at a steal.
Hungry? If all the food carts are not enough, eat world-class paella and sit in cold misters at Viva 8 while a DJ spins sick beats. Eat a roasted bug for dessert – I sure did. It was a cricket and it tasted like peanuts.
7) Drink fruit shakes.
You will feel so good! Plus, it's so warm all the time that a fruit shake makes an ideal breakfast or afternoon refresher. Dragon fruit (pitaya) is the most obnoxious-looking, delicious fruit around (in my opinion), and raging with fiber. If you get addicted to nighttime stops at the roti cart (a pancake of sorts filled with tasty items), this helps, ahem, balance things out.
8) Ride a tuk-tuk.
But first, bargain your price and define your location. Otherwise, you'll end up in a suit shop with six Burmese men measuring you while being pressured to make a purchase, while your driver begs you to buy something because he gets a kickback. This is a true story. It happened to a young country boy I met at the hostel where I was staying. I had to hold back from bursting into instantaneous laughter.
9) Find a local spot you like and return.
There was a coffee cart outside my place in Bangkok near Siam Square that (ended up) making the finest Thai iced coffee in the entire country. I simply could not find a match. Wherever I was, going to the same place made me feel like I was establishing myself in the country.
Try new places – it's why you're there – but be sure to say hi to Lik at Paradise Bar who makes the best mojito with local Sangsom rum, or Nat who makes your favorite sticky rice. They will happily remember you too!
10) Take the overnight train.
It’s about $17 US for a second class A/C, bed/seat. Eat beforehand, bring a large bottle of water (there's a 7-11 just about everywhere), and BYOB. The onboard prices are ridiculous, per usual. Make new friends and play poker before the attendant makes up your bed in 10.2 seconds flat. I loved the experience and slept like a champ. Oh, bring earplugs!
11) Drink the local beer.
It’s not much compared to the variety us San Diegans are spoiled with, but it’s still refreshing when the heat has been blaring down on you and you're not feeling like another bottle of flavored electrolytes.
Leo has the best taste, Chang has the highest ABV. Tiger is my favorite, although it is truly Singaporean. All imports are much pricier.
12) Rent a motorbike if you know you can ride it.
It's not the smartest place to learn to ride, and when you are in rush hour traffic in Chiang Mai, I can almost guarantee a slight panic attack to the most calm of folk. The majority of accidents and injuries in the country are caused by motorbikes. I'll save you my spastic story of saving myself but ruining a paint job.
Note: There are times when they ride motorbikes on the sidewalk when traffic is very congested. Move out of the way and carry on.
13) Take a cooking class.
Get your grind on with a mortar and pestle making red and green chili paste. Nearly burn your mouth off with eight uncooked chilis making papaya salad - my personal achievement! Just when you think the coconut milk has run dry, rest on the swinging hammocks to catch a rest from the warm sun.
I had a wonderful experience with Asia Scenic Cooking School, but find one that suits your location and budget. It was about $30 US for a full day with transport to a farm outside the city, and you don’t have to buy meals all day!
14) Visit temples.
I enjoyed the more visited 5.5-ton Golden Buddha (Wat Traimit) and Green Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). It was a calming and spiritual experience, and the architecture is so ornate it's mindblowing. Be sure to cover your shoulders and wear long shorts or pants; it is considered respectful.
15) Into the ocean? Get dive certified.
Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand, is known for training salty dogs how to breathe underwater. I am happily one of those folks now. See barracuda, grouper, coral life, find Nemo, pray for a whale shark sighting. Basic water skills and general health required; they teach you the rest.
The crew at Sairee Beach Dive Resort are fun, educated and will make your experience a memory for life. I look forward to returning next year for advanced diving. See you 30 meters under!
16) Into other sports?
Feed your inner explorer. The north of Thailand offers incredible whitewater rafting, cycling, ziplining, elephant reserves where you can be caretaker for the day, jungle treks... the list goes on.
17) Make new friends but keep the old.
Even if you are traveling with friends or as a couple, branch out. Take a day apart, hang with someone new, share an experience. I had an exciting yet disastrous road trip to the north with some fellows I had met in Bangkok. All good memories! Connections with where we are and the people around us are ultimately what the adventure is all about.