Several people have asked me about living in Thailand. After spending a year in Chiang Mai, here are a few suggestions, recommendations and things I wished I knew ahead of time.
- Learn to speak Thai, at least a little bit. We took classes over Skype video for 2 months from Brett Whiteside and it really helped. I can speak and understand enough basics for cordial and respectful interactions with people, and to eat wherever I want :). If you're going to be there for a while learn to read Thai. It's seriously worth it, if only for reading menus and signs.
- Always print a detailed map of wherever you're going. Anywhere. All the time. Really.
- Make a custom Google map with the locations of: post office, utility offices (power, water), telco, police station, etc. Just in case.
- Banking: ATMs cost US$5 per transaction, and result in currency conversion fees. Instead, open a Bangkok Bank account and get a debit card. Getting a bank account took some paperwork, about an hour of waiting in the bank, and I think you have to pay a small fee. Bangkok Bank is the only Thai bank with a US branch (in NY). This means that you can make direct transfers from US banks to your Bangkok Bank account, allowing for money access with a minimum of delay and fees.
- 3G: I used AIS, which has unlimited (5GB IIRC) 3G monthly pre-paid option. Absolutely recommended for access to Google Maps while lost ;).
- Thai street food is often safer than food from "western" places. The food at the carts is usually bought fresh that day, and is cooked in front of you. The food at "western" hotels and restaurants is cooked out of sight, and they try to store food, which is risky since there's not really health department inspections like in the states, to ensure the storage is properly done. You'll find infinite opinions about this - this is my personal experience. There's no magic solution. You will have some intestinal discomfort at some point.
- Western toilets are everywhere. At some point however, you'll need to use a squat toilet. Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures has humorous yet informative instructions for properly using a squat toilet.
- Use Foursquare or some other check-in service. I often couldn't find a place that I wanted to return to, or had forgotten the street, etc.
- 7-11. Is awesome. In Thailand you will pay your utility bills, refill your phone minutes, purchase concert tickets, and many other things there.
- Temples: Wear long pants and shirts with sleeves. Be quiet and respectful. Donate money to them.
Most importantly: Go anywhere and everywhere. Always take a different route. Pull over often. Walk down unfamiliar streets. See every temple. Explore every market. And always carry your camera.