No one Thailand packing list works for everyone. Different travel styles and itineraries require unique approaches. But the time-tested mantra of "bring less, buy locally" holds very true when choosing what to pack for Thailand. Why carry something around the world when you can buy it for less once you arrive?
Overpacking is the most common mistake all travelers make. Bringing too much will haunt you the entire trip and affect your experience. As travelers, we tend to go into survival mode when packing for the first visit to an exotic destination. Running through what-if scenarios results in bags stuffed with first-aid items, extra batteries, and other things that rarely get used.
Unless you're planning to spend the trip hacking through a jungle, you'll probably be within close proximity of a minimart (or massive mall) at all times in Thailand. Don't worry: You aren't going to need that snakebite kit in Thailand.
Thailand may be far from home, but the locals already have everything you need to survive and enjoy a memorable trip!
To Bring or Buy Locally
Like most international arrivals, you'll probably begin your visit to Thailand in Bangkok, home of endless shopping and cheap fakes. You'll have plenty of opportunities to escape the heat of the day by exploring sprawling malls for bargains.
If you're spending a couple of days or so in Bangkok, you'll find deals for useful items that will come in handy the rest of your trip. You'll obviously want to save the serious souvenir shopping for just before you fly out. There's no need to carry new purchases all over the country. Other items such as beach bags and sarongs are fair game!
Rather than risk losing or breaking expensive sunglasses, sandals, bags, and other items from home, you could buy them in Bangkok. Doing so helps out the local economy, plus you end up with fun souvenirs to use on future trips. The availability of new choices you can't find at home is exciting.
While deciding what to bring to Thailand, keep in mind that opportunists and local entrepreneurs are already two steps ahead. If it rains, someone selling a cheap umbrella or poncho will probably already be asking if you want to buy one. Functional items such as USB chargers, batteries, memory cards, and sunglasses can be found everywhere tourists go.
That said, there are some exceptions. Brands for specific toiletries and other items may be unfamiliar. Local quality may vary, especially if it's something locals don't often use. You may still wish to consider bringing some items to Asia with you. For example, much of the deodorant sold in Thailand contains skin-whitening agents.
Tip: If planning to visit Chiang Mai, you could consider doing a lot of your souvenir shopping there. You'll often find inexpensive handicrafts and unique items from local artisans there, particularly at the weekend walking-street markets.
Clothing to Pack for Thailand
Thailand is either warm or scorching hot, depending on what time of the year you visit. You'll rarely be cold, unless it's because of the super-powered air conditioning in malls and tourist buses. Lightweight, quick-drying clothing is the way to go. You'll find tops for sale ($7 or less) practically everywhere. That's a good thing—you're going to need at least two per day!
Cheap laundry service is available everywhere. Laundry is typically priced by the weight and takes a full day to line dry unless you pay extra for two-hour express service.
Tip: Although inexpensive, these laundry services often mix up clothing between customers. Count the number of pieces before dropping off laundry. Carefully check for missing items at pickup before walking away. Paying for laundry service at your hotel is a safer bet than choosing a place on the street.
- Bring one light coverup or warm item: Long-haul transportation such as night buses and trains really crank up the air conditioning. Expect frost to potentially form on windows! A lightweight jacket can double as a rain jacket and keep you warm on flights.
- Pack Some Conservative Clothing: Avoid clothing with religious or potentially offensive themes. Although temples in tourist areas are increasingly more relaxed, you should show respect by covering shoulders and wearing long pants (not tight-fitting yoga/stretch pants).
Shoes to Pack for Thailand
The default footwear in Thailand is the ever-useful pair of flip-flop sandals. But if you plan on fine dining or visiting rooftop bars, you may want to pack a pair of "proper" shoes.
Cheap sandals are on offer everywhere in Thailand. Flip-flops are the most common, but Birkenstock-style sandals are available, too. Typically, flip-flops are acceptable footwear everywhere, even for dinner and bar hopping. Upscale nightclubs and rooftop bars usually require men to wear closed-toe shoes. If you plan on doing some trekking, bring a pair of hiking sandals or low-top, lightweight hiking shoes that can handle getting wet.
Per local etiquette, you'll be expected to leave your shoes outside of all homes and temples as well as some restaurants, shops, and bars. You'll encounter these places more often in the islands than in cities. Sandals without straps (e.g., flip-flops) are easier to get on and off quickly without bending over. Pricey, name-brand sandals that stand out in the shoe pile have a greater chance of mysteriously walking away while you're inside.
Packing a First Aid Kit
You can walk into any pharmacy in Thailand and purchase what you need, including antibiotics and under-the-counter drugs, without a prescription. Pharmacists are trained to take some of the burden off of the medical system. You won't need to visit a local clinic first unless you're dealing with something more serious.
Branding for medications is often different than that in the United States. Google for the actual drug name or ask the pharmacist. Most will be familiar with all major medications.
If you depend on daily medications, bring enough for the duration of your trip just in case. To avoid raising eyebrows at airport security, keep a copy of the prescription when carrying large quantities of pills. Keep the pills in their original bottles, if possible.
Tip: Well-known medications are often cheaper to purchase in Thailand than in the United States. The same applies to prescription glasses and contact lenses. Consider stocking up before heading home!
Carrying Travel Documents
You'll want to prepare and carry the following documents with you:
- Two copies of your passport (carried separately from your passport)
- Travel insurance documents
- Receipt and serial numbers for any traveler's checks
- A few recent, official-sized (2 inch x 2 inch) passport photos
Extra passport photos come in handy for permits and visa applications if you wish to visit neighboring Laos or Cambodia.
Carrying Money in Thailand
Just as when investing, diversifying your travel cash is key. Have at least two ways to access funds. Local ATMs are typically the best way to get local currency at a good rate although the transaction fee in Thailand is the highest in Southeast Asia. With a fee of $6–7 per transaction, go ahead and take the maximum amount allowed.
You should have U.S. dollars or traveler's checks for backup in case the ATM network goes down or your card stops working—it happens.
No matter the economy, U.S. dollars are still the best form of emergency cash for travelers. Bring a mix of denominations that are in good condition. Crinkled, torn, or marked bills can be rejected. Dollars can be exchanged, or in some instances, spent directly. Visa prices in Southeast Asia are often given in U.S. dollars.
Credit cards are useful for booking regional flights, paying hotels, dive shops, and tour agents, but you'll almost always be charged a commission for paying with plastic. Opt to use cash when possible. Visa and Mastercard are the most commonly accepted cards.
As always, let your banks know the dates you'll be traveling so they can make a note on the account. This helps prevent your cards from being disabled when they see charges pop up far from your home country!
Must-Have Items to Carry
Whether you purchase them locally or bring them from home, you'll certainly want each of these essentials with you:
- Sunscreen: Prices for sunscreen often reflect the fact that locals rarely use it! Buy reliable brands you know from pharmacies. The stuff found in souvenir shops can often be outdated.
- Sunglasses: Sunglasses often get lost and abused. Consider buying a cheap pair locally.
- Mosquito Repellent: Dengue fever is a serious problem throughout Thailand. The best defense is to protect yourself from bites. Mosquito coils can be purchased everywhere; burn them while sitting on your porch or balcony.
- Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer: You'll find it on tables in restaurants but not always in the bathrooms.
- LED Flashlight: Power outages are common in some places, particularly islands that rely on generator power.
Other Useful Items to Consider Bringing
- Hand Sanitizer: Soap isn't a guarantee, even in nice restaurants. You'll certainly want some after your first squat toilet experience!
- Power Adapter: Most of the power outlets in Thailand are universal now; they accept both the US-style flat-pronged plugs as well as the rounded European-style power plugs. To ensure that you can connect everywhere, consider bringing a universal power adapter and check the voltage ratings (Thailand uses a 220-volt system) on your devices/chargers. Anything that relies on USB charging (smartphones) or has a dual-voltage transformer (laptops) should be fine.
- Small Knife: You don't need a 30-function survival knife, but you'll want something for cutting the delicious local fruit. Just don't leave it in your carry-on bag while flying!
- Electrolyte Drink Mixes: You'll be drinking a lot of bottled water in the heat. Drink mixes can help replenish electrolytes lost in the extra humidity and can make water a little more interesting without adding sugar. The local varieties invariably contain a lot of sugar. Alternatively, plan to drink a lot of the fresh coconuts on hand.
- Small Padlock: Some budget hotels and bungalows allow you to use your own lock on the door. You'll also want a padlock to use for lockers and luggage storage in some circumstances. These can be purchased locally if needed.
Items to Leave at Home
These inexpensive items can be purchased locally when you need them:
- Umbrella / poncho
- Beach sarong
- Snorkel gear
- Beach bag / reusable shopping bags
- Extra batteries
- Aloe vera / after-sun lotion (or consider using the excellent local coconut oil instead!)
Keep weapons off of your Thailand packing list! Pepper spray is illegal and prohibited by many airlines. Thailand is very safe to travel, but you could carry an emergency whistle for peace of mind.