Thailand Trip without a Travel Plan + 10 Lessons Learned

Thailand Trip - Wat Pho |

If you’ve read the big news that I posted earlier, you already know that I’ll move to the US this summer. I’m very happy and excited about the big adventure ahead of me, but also feeling a bit sad and guilty, that I won’t able to spend much time with my family in China anymore. So I have been spending as much time as possible with them before I leave.

My parents love traveling but they seldom travel together, because they have very different attitudes towards it.

My dad likes to visit as many places as he can in each trip, and shoots tons of pictures. He enjoys a super tight schedule and makes every minute count. On the other hand, my mom likes to travel comfortably and enjoy the time relaxing, rather than focusing on sightseeing or photography. She really hates traveling with a tour group, just like me.

Neither of them speaks English. When it comes to traveling outside of China, they travel separately. My dad ends up traveling with a tour group most of the time. My mom relies on me to be her translator and tour guide. I also get sponsored for plenty of trips, so I’m not complaining 😉

Thailand Trip |

I didn’t actually make any plans to travel at the beginning of the year. But since I’ll be leaving China soon, my dad suggested my mom and I travel together while we still can. We decided on Thailand in the end.

My preparation for the trip was SUPER poor. The worst of my entire life. We booked air tickets and hotels through an agency one month before the trip. After that, I literally did zero prep for the trip. Oh wait, I did download the Lonely Planet to my cell phone the day we departed and read it for 30 minutes on the plane. That’s the one thing I did do.

Why didn’t I prepare?

I have to confess that blogging is my excuse. That is, I had to schedule a week’s worth of posts, along with all the social media, before the trip. Plus I was already running behind schedule in February, because my office work had been busy.

But I know it’s totally my fault for being lazy and not getting things done.

Thailand Trip - Grand Palance |

Lesson learned

#1. If you feel overwhelmed by doing something and can’t ever finish your work, stop immediately and do some relaxing

I have been crazy busy since I started blogging more often. I’m constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed or burning out.

It reminds me of the time I was trying to lose weight in college, I was either starving or suffering a stomachache, no matter what I ate.

These scenarios both share a few common problems. Both are really unhealthy. They’re both totally inefficient. And they aren’t sustainable.

The Thailand trip gave me a perfect chance to stop working and just enjoy the sunshine. I felt absolutely grateful for it. I was on the edge of another burnout before the trip. But after a few days of relaxing and enjoying the sunshine, I started to feel energetic and could start to focus again.

Thailand Trip - Grand Palance |

#2. Never check your work email during vacation

I tried it this time and I loved the result.

I read about this from a book. It is about setting expectations. If your colleagues know you won’t deal with email during vacation, they will learn to stop bothering you.

As for clients, I told them via auto-response that I’d be abroad and that they could reach me by cell phone if they had an urgent matter. No one called.

I had a few important cases to deal with after returning to the office, but nothing serious enough that it had to be done the same day.

There were over 4000 emails in my inbox, but it wasn’t a big problem (I was out of the office for nearly 3 weeks). I browsed and dealt with the emails of the most recent week and mass-deleted the rest, because if it was a very important matter, the sender would either send another email or just call me.

It felt magical to me, that when I took a break from work, the work didn’t accumulate as much as I thought it would. My brain and body got fully recharged and I could work twice as efficiently as before the vacation.

Thailand Trip |

#3. Blocking a big chunk of time to read, without doing anything else, is great for creativity

I read about an hour every day on average but I still feel that I don’t read enough.

Before the trip, I made a deal with my mom. We would spend the majority of time relaxing when in Koh Samui, instead of walking around and doing touristy things. She was more than happy to do that.

I helped her set up a Kindle account on her tablet (I should have done this long ago) and downloaded dozens of award-winning novels onto it (including my favorite – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

This plan fit perfectly into our itinerary, because there was no itinerary.

We spent three days by the seaside, enjoy the sunshine and the books. It felt so good. I managed to finish two books and got some great inspiration that I was ready to implement after the trip.

The reading session was so good that I decided I should start scheduling time do it on a daily basis. Now I increased my hour-a-day to reading whenever I can. I even managed to eliminate a few tasks to clear out some time for reading. My overall feeling of happiness towards life has already increased significantly.

Thailand Trip - Grand Palance |

#4. Never talk to strangers who linger around sightseeing spots.

I was scammed, multiple times.

I was so upset and ashamed of myself that I feel embarrassed telling people about this.

It was totally my fault, because I didn’t read the line at the bottom of the page on Lonely Planet – “Beware of the well-dressed touts near xxx who will tell you it is closed and then try to haul you off on a dodgy buying spree.”

I didn’t fall that far, but I did believe the Grand Palace was closed at noon after three people in a row told me the same thing. We were walking from Wat Pho to the Grand Palace and didn’t find the right entrance at first. I asked for directions from three different people and they all lied.

We ended up wasting the time and going to get lunch first and coming back later, only to find it was actually open throughout the day. (our original plan was Wat Pho => Grand Palace => lunch)

Thailand Trip - Wat Pho |

#5. Mark your destination on Google Maps beforehand, when using a taxi in a foreign city

I was scammed, multiple times. AGAIN.

We were trying to go get lunch nearby and got into a taxi (after we were scammed and believed the Grand Palace was closed).

I had done the research and chose the restaurant beforehand. I had checked its hours and marked the location on Google Maps.

When I showed the address to the driver, he said he didn’t know the place. He made a phone call and told me it was closed (didn’t realize it was a trick). He even showed me he dialed the right number and that nobody picked up the call.

I believed him. He was very friendly and suggested that he could drop us at the hotel if we wanted lunch. I told him no (the hotel was quite far away) and we just wanted to grab a quick lunch and go back to sightseeing.

He promised us that he’d drop us at a great restaurant he knows. I believed him again.

After 30 minutes driving and waiting (traffic was super bad), I started to realize something was off. I told him to just drop us at a nearby restaurant and said that we needed to get out of the car. He said we’d be there soon. After another five minutes’ driving. He finally pulled over at a very shabby looking and dark Chinese restaurant, with nobody inside. I checked my map and found out we were in the middle of nowhere.

We ended up walking 20 minutes in the sun (35 degrees C, 95 F) in the middle of the day until we found a coffee chain. We had crappy sandwiches instead of enjoying local food.

There is more.

When we finished lunch and called another taxi to go back to the sightseeing spot (still no subway nearby), and we were scammed again.

After 15 minutes of driving, I started to realized that the view was unfamiliar, so I checked the phone. The map showed that we were going the opposite direction of our destination. I was furious. Because of the bad traffic, we ended up spending 40 more minutes to get back on the right track.

Lesson learned. I will remember to check Google Maps every time I get a cab in a new city.

See? Even when you do your homework and make a plan, things always happen to change it.

#6. Only go to a back-alley restaurant if it is packed with people

Everyone knows this, but it’s worth mentioning again. Even though we have Yelp, Google, and TripAdvisor, they don’t guarantee we can find the best local restaurants. Because local people don’t necessarily use those services.

When looking for a local restaurant on Koh Samui, I used the typical method that had worked like magic every time.

  1. Walk past the main street
  2. Find a place that is packed with people; the majority of them should be local
  3. Make sure the place does not have any “touristy” pictures hanging outside
  4. See that the menu is simple and isn’t translated into four languages
  5. 80% of the food on the menu should be unfamiliar.

We had some best seafood ever at a cheap price.

Thailand Trip - Seafood |

#7. Google Maps comes in handy when you need to find a restaurant near your hotel

It doesn’t contain as much information as Yelp, but it’s surprisingly helpful when you’re trying to find a restaurant nearby. The comments on Google are almost always fewer than on TripAdvisor, which means, if 20 comments say it’s a good place, it’s probably worth visiting. Plus, you don’t need wifi (you can access the map with GPS) to get directions if you have marked the spot at the hotel and cached a map of the local area.

As a foodie myself, I schedule time and make trips to restaurants that are worth the time and effort. However, when I travel with my mom, I want her to travel comfortably, which means we find a nice place to eat as soon as we’re hungry, instead of spending an hour in transit (and another 30 minutes to get lost) to find THE hidden place to have some food.

Thailand Trip - fusion food at Eat Me Restaurant |

We found a fusion restaurant only 10 minutes from our hotel – Eat Me. It was opened by a chef from NYC. We had some of the best food made with local ingredients – mixed clams with nam sausage and coriander lime broth; line-caught Japanese black cod served with spicy coconut cream and oyster mushrooms; and crispy duck confit served with roasted beets, fennel, and banyuls gastrique.

I still feel super hungry whenever I see these food pics!

#8. To take better travel pictures, quickly walk past the busiest spots of any sightseeing place

You’ll be so surprised at how few people there are once you pass the major site within the most well-known touristy spot. We went to Wat Pho around 10 am and you can imagine how packed it was near the golden Buddha. It was impossible to get any good pictures. Plus it’s just plain annoying to be around so many people.

But if you walk a bit further to go to the other end of the temple, there are 20 times less people walking around. You can even get some panoramic photos without any people at all.

Thailand Trip - Wat Pho |

#9. To take better travel pictures, find LESS famous and significant objects to shoot

For example, do not ever shoot the golden Buddha at the Wat Pho. Or never shoot the main palace at Grand Palace.

OK, you can take a picture to prove you were there and even post it on Facebook.

But if you want to show at least something new and creative, find some other objects instead of things you see on postcards. The fact that something is on a postcard means the spot has been shot to death and you probably won’t find anything new there (it’s not impossible, but really difficult).

Thailand Trip - Grand Palance |

#10 To take better travel pictures – shoot food, details, vibrant colors, and people

Thailand Trip - Shoot Better Pictures |

Thailand Trip - Grand Palance |

Thailand Trip - Pineapple Rice |

Thailand Trip - People |

Oh wait, I have one more tip for you!

Bonus tip #11. Get your photos off the camera and edit them within a week after the trip ends

Otherwise you will go through them again and again without editing them in the next few weeks. And then you’ll forget about the photos and never look at them for the next 10 months. And whenever a friend or family member asks about your trip, you will bitterly smile and tell them you’ll show them the pictures once you finish editing, but you know you won’t.

I followed my own advice this time. That’s why you’re reading about my Thailand trip right now, but you’ll never read about my trip to Greece, which I took 5 months ago.

Thailand Trip |

So how was my trip to Thailand, you ask.

I enjoyed every minute of it.

There were some small troubles. But they were nothing compared to the things I gained during the trip. I’m glad I made this trip, even though it was a last minute decision and I didn’t do enough preparation.

My mom was very happy with the trip, too (thank God!).

I was happy to spend some time with her. And I have felt really recharged and ready for work since returning to Beijing.

My biggest lesson learned during this trip – high quality distraction is the best way to help us stay focused.

*The End*


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Hi I'm Maggie Zhu! Welcome to my site about modern Chinese cooking - including street food, family recipes, and restaurant dishes. I take a less labor-intensive approach while maintaining the taste and look of the dish. I am originally from Beijing, and now cook from my New York kitchen.

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20 thoughts on “Thailand Trip without a Travel Plan + 10 Lessons Learned

  1. Shinee

    Maggie, thanks for sharing your beautiful trip! I really enjoyed your photos and your tips. Shoot, I need to take your last advice. I did process my Europe photos from the memory cards, now I need to go through my iPhone. Thanks for the nudge! 🙂

  2. Nancy | Plus Ate Six

    If it’s any consolation I got scammed (years ago) on my first trip to Thailand. I got back to the hostel, read the Lonely Planet and realised I’d fallen for a tourist scam. Put it down to experience 🙂 The most important thing is you got to have quality time with your Mum.
    PS 4000 emails in 3 weeks?? People need to layoff the cc: I reckon!!

    1. Maggie Post author

      Hey Nancy, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment 🙂 It is true that sometimes we need to experience to learn, especially when traveling to a new place. We were angry at the time, but now whenever I think about it, I just laugh at myself 😉
      4000 emails in 3 weeks was the unfortunate result of improperly set group mail. I often need to fish trough 50 emails to find one that matters 😛

  3. Kayiu @ Saucy Spatula

    I had the best meals at back-alley restaurants in Thailand!

    I love this post, Maggie! After you move to the States, your parents should come visit you in Austin, and other parts of the country! I think they’ll love it!

    Man, looking at all your pictures is making me miss Thailand. The weather, the people, the relaxation, and THE FOOD!

    Can you share your photography tip when traveling? There were days where I didn’t want to take my DSLR with me at all times just because I want to enjoy the moment. What kind of camera and lenses do you usually bring when traveling?

    1. Maggie Post author

      Yep, I’ll definitely take them to travel in Austin and around after I settled down. So many places in the US that I want to visit too 🙂

      I always bring my DSLR with a zoom lens when I was traveling. I was using Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm, and from this year, I upgraded to Nikon D750 with 24-120mm (the new toy I got myself as New Year’s gift). I’m already missing my D7000 because the new camera is damn heavy and my arms were always so sore. When traveling, I only bring one zoom lens.

      I totally understand the feeling of reluctant to bring the big camera. It’s heavy, and I always feel awkward when I pointed my food with the huge lens in a fancy restaurant. I shoot some photos with my phone (e.g beachside, in a bar or when I feel lazy). Especially if you only post it to FB or Instagram, phone will be ok in a lot of situations. Sometimes, phone performs even better when shooting food in low light situation (you’ll need some filter of course). But the truth is, if you want to shoot street, architecture, or people, a DSLR will be a better choice (sometimes even a tripod, but I seldom do that).

      I talked a bit about photography in this post (If you see the photos, you can’t really tell I was using a cheaper DSLR).

      I’d like to write more about travel photography. Thanks for letting me know this great post idea 🙂

  4. Alice @ Hip Foodie Mom

    Maggie, what a great post!!! These tips are great for anyone traveling to a foreign place!!! and so glad you feel recharged and ready for work since returning home. . that’s almost never the case after returning home from a trip! 🙂

  5. Helen @ Scrummy Lane

    Awww, Maggie, I would love to hear about your trip to Greece 😉
    Bangkok is just about one of my favourite cities in the world. Love it – and so many wonderful photo opportunities!
    Thanks for the tips …. very very useful and I will be re-reading them before my next trip!

  6. Lokness @ The Missing Lokness

    It is hard to believe what people would do to make a little bit of money. But so glad you realized soon enough. And you guys had a wonderful trip! Love all your pictures! Makes me want to go there now. I would love to visit Thailand one day. Thanks so much for all these useful tips. I will keep them handy. 🙂

  7. Robyn @ Simply Fresh Dinners

    I was scammed multiple times when I was on Phucket, Maggie. I think I’ve been scammed in every country I’ve visited and Canada, too, lol.

    Your vacation sounds heavenly though, and I’m so glad you were able to relax and enjoy the time with your Mom! What a great picture of the two of you. And your other photos are simply beautiful.

    I will take your advice about de-stressing. Really enjoyed this post!

  8. Sarah @ Savoring Spoon

    Thanks for the travel tips, and also travel photography tips! I love reading this post. I felt relaxed reading it and looking at the colorful pictures – like I was there too. Glad you had a good time and relaxed!

  9. Kevin | keviniscooking

    These are great tips and what beautiful photos Maggie. Thailand is on the list, but for now I have booked India and we are so excited. The Holi Festival should be amazing and in the meantime visiting family here in the States will have to curb the travel bug.

    1. Maggie Post author

      I never went to India before but it’s a amazing travel destination to explore. Don’t forget to grab your best camera and lens for the Holi Festival! Looking forward to your travel pictures 🙂

  10. Aysegul

    I just found some time to catch up with what is going on your blog. First of all, congratulations. Wonderful news. I am married to an American man and I love it/him. 🙂
    Second, these notes are so valid and helpful. Thank you !
    We are planning a trip to Thailand next year and I am in need of any information I can get my hands on. I definitely understand the chaos we bloggers are faced with before traveling, but from what I see here you have done an amazing job.

    1. Maggie Post author

      Thanks Aysegul! I found quite a few people share the similar experience after I posted the news, very interesting 🙂
      I’m glad you found the travel notes helpful. I know you’re a very experienced traveler yourself, and btw, your photos in Chicago are just stunning! I really love traveling, but lately I started reluctant to plan it, because I always feel overwhelmed and don’t have the time. On the other hand, taking trip is one of the best ways to get inspired and new ideas, which are really important for us.
      One of my plans is to explore American cities after I get there. Hopefully I’ll become a better travel planner by then 😉

  11. Luke

    I’ve never been to Thailand, but have heard lots of stories of scams there. However, I have been to Vietnam and sadly I was scammed several times, particularly by taxi drivers. Even in China I’ve been cheated; I took a bus to the Great Wall at Mutianyu a couple years ago and was told I had to hire a car for the rest of the way there, so I did. For the longest time, I thought I did the right thing, but recently I realized I was cheated. Private cars and bread vans also overcharge, but I remember one time a driver said “80 yuan” I just said “tai gui le” (too expensive), and he dropped it to 20 yuan! So it’s possible to avoid all the scams, though in some places (like Thailand or Vietnam) it’s particulary difficult.

    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Luke, yep, the taxi driver here will ask much more money if they found out you’re not familiar with the city, especially to foreign guys. Also, people lingering around train station and tourist area tend to play tricks too. I never feel it in Beijing simply because I’m too familiar with the city and generally ignore these. However, the experience in Thailand just reminds me that I need to be careful, because the same thing happens everywhere.
      For the taxi, I always find Google map helps. At least you can check whether the drive is taking a detour (with meter on).

  12. Bingkoo

    A tip would be find a fixer in Thailand before you arrive. They let you see thailand from a local’s point of view and you get to eat authentic.

  13. Bam's Kitchen

    Great Post Maggie and gorgeous photos!!! I am so glad you took some quality time for yourself. I somehow missed this post from a few weeks ago but glad to read it now. You know I never thought about Thailand that way as I have usually always visited with local friends and on a couple of occasions gone with just my family. If you ever have a chance to go back again try a less touristy city like Hua Hin and I am sure you will be less of prey for those nasty swindlers. Have a super week. Take care, BAM

    1. Maggie Post author

      I’m totally agree with you on this one Bobbi. I really think travel with local will make a trip a totally different experience. It might be difficult sometimes, but I did try reaching to the local friends before traveling (Remind me of one of my best trips, in Prague). Thailand is the great travel destination that I’d always love to go back again, plus the amazing food! Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll definitely consider smaller (= less touristy) cities next time.
      Have a great week 🙂