Join the other curious and interested readers of my Sunday letters. Sign up
Enjoy this piece? Get more like it every Sunday.Sign up

Top 12 Things I'm Glad I Brought to Thailand

I headed into Thailand never having done solo travel, never having been to Thailand, and never having tried to permanently live out of my checked baggage. As you’d expect, I brought a lot of things I didn’t need.

But I also brought some things that were lifesavers.

Here are the top 12 Things I'm glad I brought to Thailand:

Water Purifier

Camelback All Clear

I brought a Camelback All Clear, and it’s been genius. It’s a UV filter, so all I need to do to get a clean 750ml of water is fill it up, press a button on the lid, and wait 60 seconds. It’s enabled me to travel and drink the water anywhere without worry or trouble. Best of all, it’s battery powered (I get about a week out of it,) and recharges via USB.

There really isn’t much more important than clean water, and my camelback has been an easy, durable, reliable way to get it.

Power Strip with USB

Belkin Power Strip with USB

I love these Belkin Power Strips - they handle 110 and 220, provide two full-power USB outlets, and the outlet can rotate to any angle, so they’ll work anywhere.

One of the joys of traveling now (as opposed to say, 5 years ago) is that the days of random 9-volt adapters are gone. Everything charges via USB. I pack two of these power strips, and keeping all of my devices powered, even in the tech-heavy life I live, is easy.

VPN Tunnel

Tunnelbear

One of the most unexpected truths of international life is that the internet is not the same everywhere. This applies to both to censorship by local governments, and being able to do stuff like watch Netflix or listen to Pandora. Simply put, without a VPN, there’s often no way to get to big parts of the internet.

However, with a VPN, your computer appears to be coming from some other country, and all’s well. I’ve used it to listen to music, watch football, and in more extreme cases, access Wikipedia.

I’ve tried a few, and the best of the bunch is TunnelBear. It’s simple to use, well-designed, and it just works.

An offline map for your phone.

Maps.me

If you’re traveling, anywhere, do yourself a favor and download maps.me. Seriously, do it right now. It’s a brilliant little app that works on and offline, allows you search, pin locations, and even get offline directions, anywhere in the world. It’s so good it makes Google Maps look broken (which, outside the U.S., it typically is.) It’s been accurate in every city I’ve been in, and the maps are updated every few weeks.

Without any question, it’s the best money I’ve spent. When I’m lost in some random section of Bangkok, instead of pulling out a map and looking like a tourist mark, I simply pop open my phone (which looks perfectly normal) and maps.me shows me not only a map, but where I am on it and which way I’m facing. Trust me, that’s invaluable, and it makes a paper map seem broken.

An iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s

I resisted iPhones for years, refusing them on lots of questionable grounds. I don’t wear skinny jeans. I’m not one of the mindless masses. Blah blah blah.

But when it was time to get the phone that would travel the world with me, there was only one choice. The iPhone is the world’s best-known phone. It works everywhere, and every sim card seller anywhere in the world has seen it.

It’s also got a great camera, is small and fairly rugged, and just works.

If you made me pick just one thing from this list to travel with, my iPhone would be it.

My Icebreaker shirts and boxers

Icebreaker shirts

I only have one shirt. Well, technically, I have seven, but they’re all the same. They’re Icebreaker merino smartwool, which roughly translates to “magical fabric of wonder.”

They keep me cool when it’s hot. They keep me warm when it’s cool. I can wear a shirt for a full week without it smelling, getting icky or gross, or in any way appearing to be anything besides clean. Then, a quick wash in cold water, hang dry, and they’re ready to go again.

They also pack down small and light, and somehow manage to look fairly sharp in the process. The same goes for the boxers.

If you’ve got to invest your entire wardrobe into one garment, it’s hard to go wrong with smartwool.

My Waterpik Flosser

Waterpik Travel Flosser

I’ve had a deep and abiding fear of dentists for most of my life. I’m one of these people with chronically bad teeth, and despite some pretty solid efforts, I’ve still had five root canals, three crowns, a tooth removed, and more fillings than I can count.

Before these travels, on the advice of my wonderful dentist in Portland, I picked up a tiny travel waterpik flosser, and packed it in my bag. I didn’t know how long I’d be between trips to the dentist, and I wanted to do what I could to keep things good.

About three months into my Thailand travels, I started having cold sensitivity in one of my back teeth. Fearing the worst, I booked a last-minute visit to my dentist as I passed through Portland.

He took a look in my mouth, poked and prodded, and then delivered the best and most astounding diagnosis I’ve ever heard come from a dentist’s mouth. “So what’s happening,” he said, “is that your gums are healthier than they’ve been well, maybe ever. They’re not inflamed anymore, and the surface of your tooth is now being exposed to cold, which it’s never experienced in your life. Your teeth look better than they ever have, and the sensitivity should go away in a few months.”

Waterpik, I am sold. I will never be without you.

A Little Travel Speaker

Klipsch GiG

I’ve always been a minimalist. For years, friends who visited my home found absolutely no furniture. The only things in my living room were bookcases built for sitting-on-the-floor height, and good speakers.

Sound, I argued, was furniture.

Today, I still carry that philosophy. Even if I’m in an entirely new space in a country I don’t know, if I can put on some music and have it fill the space, I’m home. It’s furnished the way my home always has been.

To handle the duties out in my new life, I’ve traded in my beloved home-sized Klipsch G-17 for a tiny Klipsch GiG. It’s small, battery-powered (and USB-charged), and it produces amazing, room-filling sound. At my apartment in San Cristóbal, I sited it underneath a hollow couch, and I’d put it against any stereo system costing ten times as much.

It’s a fantastic little device, and for me, it makes each new place home.

Noise Suppressing Headphones

Etymotics HF5

The value of these was made most apparent on a trans-atlantic flight a few years back. After landing, as I was getting up to get my bag, the woman in the seat behind me, holding a baby, apologized, “I’m so sorry for all the crying.”

I looked around at all the frazzled faces around me. “I feel bad saying this,” I replied, pointing at my headphones, “but I honestly didn’t hear anything.” Many inquiries followed as towhat are those magical headphones of yours.

In those days, I had a pair of Shure’s which after 10 years of service, sadly wore out and had been discontinued. These days, I have a pair of Etymotics HF5s which I like less, but still work really well.

One note If you’re in the market for travel headphones: I steadily recommend noise-suppressing (good insulation blocks sound out) over noise-canceling (fancy electronics ‘cancel out’ the incoming sound.) Why? Well, do you want to have the flight where the batteries on your fancy headphones died and you’re in front of the screaming kid? Right. Case closed.

An International Driving License

International Driving License

In Phuket, the city was spread out enough that there was no other practical way to explore it other than to learn to drive a scooter. And, since both the tourist police and the legit scooter rental shops were looking for an international driving license, I felt very lucky that I’d gotten one before hitting the road.

The process, it turns out, is both simple and ridiculous. You go into AAA, show them your license and hand over a pair of passport photos and $25, and they give you a stamped international license. Somehow, this qualifies as legit identification, and verification that you’re qualified to drive in a place where the rules of the road are completely, totally different.

Riight. But hey, it works!

A Dictionary App

The Best Thai-English Dictionary App

In particular, for Thailand, this dictionary app. It’s simply excellent, and I haven’t been able to find anything close to its quality for other languages, which is heartbreaking.

Having a dictionary on your phone will save you countless times out in restaurants, but will also help you out in conversations, by letting you learn and use a needed word in context, without completely disrupting the flow of the conversation.

Dictionary apps beat paper books because they are so much faster for looking up words, and mean that the awkward let me fumble for that for a while you get with a phrase book doesn’t happen.

Deodorant

Deodorant

This last one’s a fun one. Clearly, there is deodorant in Thailand, and I can buy it at really any market or supermarket.

However, I’m really particular about how I smell. I’ve changed types of deodorant exactly three times in my life, and each time only because the type I was using was discontinued. Every time, I pretty much bought the whole aisle, tried them all out, and found the one that was right.

Clearly, that’s just me. I once dated a girl who just bought the cheapest one, and I could never really understand. It’s how you smell!! How can you be so casual about it??

My point is to pack for your own idiosyncrasies. If you’re neurotic about your toothpaste, toss a tube in your bag. If you feel better with a certain kind of notebook, pack some. Whatever small thing you know is simple and will make you feel at home, pack it.

That’s the list.

That’s my list. Maybe it helps you plan for your travels, just amuses you, or makes you think about things a bit differently. I suspect as the years go by, the list of things I find really valuable will shift. In the one-checked-bag world I live in, every single ounce has to justify its space. I can’t wait to see what makes it.

Note: Yep, if you buy from those Amazon links, you pay the normal price and I get a little bit of money back from Amazon. Don’t feel obligated, of course, but if you’re already in the market for one of those things, I wouldn’t mind!

Nah, I hate curiousity.