June 10, 2023

10 mistakes to avoid on your first trip to Thailand

Are you planning your first time to Koh Samui or elsewhere in Thailand? If so, borrow my "older and wiser" list of top 10 mistakes to avoid.

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Strange but true ... I packed so badly for my first trip to Thailand that my failure inspired this entire website and, later, The Koh Samui Guide.

Are you planning your first time to Koh Samui or elsewhere in Thailand? If so, borrow my "older and wiser" list of top 10 mistakes to avoid. Enjoy!

10 mistakes to avoid on your first trip to Koh Samui, Thailand

1. Don't pack what I packed

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
My first trip to Koh Samui: August, 2003 near Choeng Mon Beach

Twenty years ago this August, I was a first-time visitor to both Thailand and Koh Samui. I thought I was just headed on a "typical beach vacation", so I was surprised at how badly wrong I got the Thai dress code. Culture-wise and climate-wise: my packing got an F. An F minus.

My packing and dress code mistakes

2003 Fashion Crimes included J-Lo sunglasses, visors ... and worse. Add at least five Bacardi Breezers to every photo and it's not pretty. Yet, the worst of a bad bunch was a pair of cut-off jean shorts – they were way too short for Thailand's modest culture and way too hot for the tropics. To make matters worse, I paired the shorts with an Avril Lavigne-esque tube top ... and went sightseeing at Koh Samui's Big Buddha. A temple. Bad bad bad, but I didn't know any better.

How to avoid my mistake?

Five years on, I had returned to Koh Samui regularly and I decided it was my duty to mankind to help well-intentioned people arrive in Thailand with half a clue.

In 2008, this blog was born with two posts: How to Pack for Thailand and What to Wear in Thailand

Read through these two tried-and-tested guides, and immediately you'll be able to pack for Thailand like a pro. For a quick head-start, your Koh Samui packing should definitely include clever mosquito protection, slip-off shoes and lots of linen.

2. Avoid a beach mistake

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
2003 on Choeng Mon Beach – see it today

Before blogs, WiFi, iPhones or Pinterest, it was thanks to good luck (and a great travel agent) that my first visit to Thailand included a stay on Koh Samui's Choeng Mon Beach. I fell in love with it immediately, and it's a bias that's remained. I've since tried others, but it will always be my particular favourite.

How to avoid a bad beach mistake?

Today, you have a lot more research material available to you – and the decent probability of it overwhelming you. How to find what will be *your* favourite beach?

Start with my recommendations for where to stay on Koh Samui. As a great head-start, see all of your many choices – distilled in a beach-by-beach list. As for "which beach is best"? It's nothing but personal preference.

3. Over-enthusiastic shopping

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Huge Thai triangle cushion ... how would you pack this?

My mistake: I bought a ubiquitous triangular Thai cushion... and then wondered how to transport it home. Triangle peg into a rectangular suitcase? Not the best way to spend the last hour of your vacation.

How to avoid my mistake?

1. Shop Koh Samui's best: If you love to shop, jump right into the helpful shopping chapter of The Koh Samui Guide. Use its expert tips to swap your play money for the island's best souvenirs (or perhaps some of its weirdest).

2. Buy something better: Sneak a peek at the best things to buy in Thailand, and remind yourself often that Thai silk is much easier to pack than an enormous triangle.

3. Plan ahead: Hoping to leave Koh Samui with lots of goodies? A foldable duffel bag is easy to store in your main piece of luggage as an eleventh-hour 'just-in-case'.

4. World's worst animal-lover

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
My biggest regret is riding an elephant ... I had no idea

Aside from the visor, my biggest regret on my first visit to Thailand was riding an elephant. I had no idea and, at the time, thought I was being all kinds of "intrepid in Asia". Only later did I learn what I really wish I'd known. (In my weak defence – this was in 2003, two years before YouTube existed).

Perhaps, like me, you're a massive animal-lover? It's a big regret that I supported such a cruel practice – something I try to atone for with a little soapbox 'do as I say, not as I did' oration.

How to avoid my mistake?

Before getting anywhere near an elephant in Thailand, take full advantage of (A) my hindsight and (B) today's internet to do your essential research. Find out what I wish I'd known about elephants on Koh Samui.

5. $$$ on sunscreen

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Thai people – smarter than I was – will always find the shade and stay there

How to tell a first-time Thailand visitor? Look for the person who has seriously underestimated Thailand's sun. My entire family brought just one sun-hat between us, and we spent more money on sunscreen than on any souvenir. (Want to literally save your hide? See my tried-and-tested favourites – the best toiletries for Thailand, plus how to avoid mosquitoes in Thailand).

How to avoid my mistake?

Note that sunscreen on Koh Samui costs between 150-300% more for the same bottle than on Amazon. There's much less selection, too: not much for sensitive skin and next-to-nothing that's cruelty-free. Bring lots, and bring it from home!

6. Samui sunshine vs your skin

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Loving the shade at SALA Samui Chaweng

I got sunburned. Badly. Now I know exactly where Koh Samui sits, latitudinally.

How to avoid my mistake?

Never say the words "Oh, I never burn" in Thailand. Instead, run and hide like a scared kitten as noon approaches. As for your sun-hat for Thailand? The bigger the brim, the better.

7. Beware the cheap Jeep

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Koh Samui's ring road

Beep beep, it's a cheap Jeep. To explore Koh Samui, we rented a Jeep without air-conditioning. It was cheap, but a big mistake! We stuck to the seats and hung out the windows like hot dogs for our first island road-trip.

What to do instead?

Discover how to arrive savvy on your car rental options on Koh Samui (and – crucially – pay the extra for an air-conditioned vehicle). Good news for you – there's much more choice in rental car inventory these days. Honda Civic, here you come.

Crucial safety tips

Note that Koh Samui has a crazy-high accident rate for its most common form of tourist-transport: scooters and motorbikes (and, as such, I recommend car rental over scooters). If you absolutely have to scoot, wear a helmet. No matter what – no matter when you come, where you stay, or what you hope to do while on Samui – make sure you come with quality travel insurance.

8. Don't drown

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Before enjoying the water, don’t miss the detailed safety section in The Koh Samui Guide

Our 'Ocean Incident': We went kayaking, loved it, kept going, and going ... out into the big, scary ocean. If you let me tell the story after some wine, we kayaked to Cambodia*. We were "those" tourists, and totally underestimated ocean currents. There's a reason long-tail boats have motors!

*Since writing this, I received an irate email from someone, along the lines "you can't possibly kayak to Cambodia, you're a fraud, you've never been to Koh Samui." We all understand this is nearly marooned hyperbole, yes? It was closer to Koh Farn ... but distances can deceive at sea.

How to expect the unexpected?

Arrive in Thailand with a healthy respect for the ocean, especially around Koh Samui where currents and creatures do cause the occasional tragedy. (Jellyfish are rare but known in the region). With each update of The Koh Samui Guide, I add more and more to the safety section – clearly having left the "youthful infallibility" decade of my life behind.

9. Death by Pad Thai

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
Work your way through an entire Thai menu, and beyond.

I ate SO.MUCH.PAD.THAI. on my first Koh Samui trip. Breakfast, lunch, dinner ... as soon as I could specify chicken or shrimp in Thai, there was no stopping me.

This early noodle enthusiasm means I'm still not quite ready for more Pad Thai, ensuring much broader menu exploration ever since. The current tally of Piggy McGreedyson research? The better part of two decades' eating the entire island, nearly every cuisine known to man.

Try this instead...

If you want Pad Thai, it will find you. If you'd like to try it all, then discover where to eat on Koh Samui.

10. Missing the magic

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Trip to Thailand
My first Koh Samui sunrise in August, 2003 (easier to do with jetlag!)

Only at the end of my trip did I realise that Koh Samui sunrises are such a secret, magical show. (I'm not an early-riser, so I can encourage you to enjoy a Thai sunrise and not sound like a smug yogi). There's a lazy way, I promise.

How to see it all?

The fun way: Book a sunrise stand-up paddleboard tour.

The lazy way: Here's how to enjoy a "lazy sunrise" every day of your vacation: You get up, watch the sunrise, then go back to bed and hope there's some bacon left at breakfast later. When to get up? Set your alarm to Koh Samui's dawn and sunrise times.

Bonus: Mistake #11. Last drop of alcopop

As confessed, I was drinking Bacardi Breezers in August 2003 (and thinking I was coooool). On my last day I ‘discovered’ Koh Samui rum (and have never touched another Breezer).

Don't miss the local stuff

Thanks to the passage of time, there's a world more option for drinks on Koh Samui today. Help yourself to nearly twenty years' dedicated booze research in The Koh Samui Guide. Should you want to drink the Bacardi rainbow, Koh Samui Tesco has your back.

Koh Samui for first-timers

I often say that The Koh Samui Guide is 'the guide I wish I'd had' from the start. But my 'live and learn' first trip to Koh Samui was still a perfect vacation – as I hope yours will be. Still, if you want the cheat-sheet to enjoy Samui like total pros... I've literally written the manual. Enjoy!

P.S. You can find every tip for planning your Koh Samui travel in the archive, or subscribe by email and get all the details straight to your inbox. Enjoy!