Packing for Southeast Asia

packing for southeast asia
Packing for a long trip isn’t easy but try to resist the temptation to pack too much!

Packing for Southeast Asia?

Firstly, the number 1 mistake made by all travelers, including myself, is packing too much! (Read more about the common mistakes made by first time backpackers)

I am guilty of this myself and now, looking back, it seems stupid to bring so many clothes from home. I mean, really, there are so many shops, markets, stalls, malls and opportunities to buy clothes, and anything else you could ever need, pretty much anywhere in the world and often for cheaper prices than at home. So what is the point in trudging around in the heat carrying so much stuff.

However, speaking from personal experience I know how strong the urge is to pack everything you think you might ever need before you venture out into the unknown.

Throughout my Asia trip I found that my tastes changed on the road and most of the stuff I bought with me I didn’t use and instead bought new stuff – equaling even more stuff to carry around!

So, ironically for a post about packing for Southeast Asia, my main advice is don’t pack too much!

first backpacking trip in europe
My first backpacking trip around Europe where we packed way too much, including high heels and hair straighteners! I could barely carry my bag!

Finding it hard to Pack Light?

Luckily, it is pretty easy to find somewhere to store a large bag or suitcase (usually for free) in a hostel, say in Bangkok or Singapore, and come back to collect it when you fly out a couple of weeks or months later.

The best thing I did was leaving my large bag at a hostel and switching to a small 45 litre rucksack. I bought and threw away things as I went along. It was so much easier to carry and store on trains, buses and boats and even saved me money by taking it as carry on luggage on flights. I didn’t feel weary and hot trudging round with it and most importantly for a solo female traveler I could easily pick it up and carry it without any help. I’ll never be using my huge backpack again!

small backpack packing for south east asia
It’s so much easier with a smaller bag – this was enough space to see me around South East Asia

Having said that, there are a couple of things that you should think about packing for Southeast Asia:

A few pairs of light cotton shorts and tops. There’s no need to buy special gear but get loose fitting, basic clothes that are breathable, comfortable, light weight and easy to wash, dry and look OK even after being screwed up in your bag. Avoid shiny, nylon material which will sweat and stick to you unbearably in the heat. South East Asia is hot and humid – don’t even think about bringing jeans and you shouldn’t need any jumpers or warm clothes unless going to higher altitudes like Sapa in Vietnam but a light fleece or jumper might come in useful on overly air conditioned night buses. Chose comfort over fashion.

A weeks worth of underwear and socks. This is the area where I overstock because, while I can wear a top a few days running, I just can’t compromise with underwear and considering the little space that it takes up it’s not worth it to be worrying about washing your undies in the sink every other night. Come on, you’re on holiday after all!

packing for south east asia small bag
Carrying a heavy bag around makes everything so much more tiring and difficult – having a smaller bag and less stuff made my trip easier and more enjoyable

2 swimsuits. The amount of amazing beaches, waterfalls and swimming opportunities in South East Asia mean that you will probably need 2 swimsuits as it’s really horrible putting on a wet one. Plus a bikini top can double up as a bra saving space in the underwear department.

Passport, obviously, and important documents and make a few photocopies and store them online so you can access them even if you lose everything. I always split my valuables – I take 2 debit cards and 2 credit cards and about 200 US dollars in cash and split them between 2 locations so you always have the other even if one purse gets lost or stolen.

Small handbag – A small day bag or handbag will come in useful because you don’t want to carry your big backpack everywhere with you. I’ve never really used a money belt but instead I have a small bag that I make sure zips up that I wear over my body to avoid any wandering hands getting into the bag or snatching it off my shoulder.

Small combination padlock – to keep your valuables safe in a locker in a hostel or guest house and to lock your room as some places don’t provide a padlock. Don’t bother with a lock and key though as the chances of losing the tiny key are too high.

Ear Plugs and Eye Mask – for when you just want some sleep on a flight, long bus journey or in a noisy hostel

A cover up – useful for the beach, to avoid mosquito bites and to throw on when visiting temples or palaces where you need to be dressed respectively (legs and shoulders covered) It can be a pain to cover up in the heat so get something loose and light. The ubiquitous colourful baggy trousers are everywhere in Asia and popular with backpackers as a light weight, comfortable leg covering.

angkor wat cover up
You will need a light weight cover up to enter temples and holy places like Angkor Wat

Comfortable light weight trainers or walking sandals – most of the time flip flops will do but it’s handy to have a decent pair of shoes for any trekking, hiking or walking on rough and dirty surfaces.

Medications – I always travel with enough medications to get me over any hangovers and stomach upsets. Take paracetamol, diarrhea tablets like immodium and re-hydration sachets, any medications you need regularly at home, antiseptic and plasters, insect bite creams and repellents with high levels of DEET (these can be hard to find in SEA) and maybe malaria tablets if going to a high risk area.

Toiletries – you can buy most toiletries and shampoos easily across Asia so save space by just carrying small travel sized toiletries. Shampoo can double up as body wash but you might have trouble finding things like facial creams, make up, foundations, deodorant and body lotion without whitening (bleaching) ingredients as Asians aim for fairer skin. I’m sure these are not good for your skin so take enough skin care products.

Suncream – don’t count on it always being available so bring some with you.

Toilet paper and hand sanitizing gel – essential for hygiene for those squat toilets and places where toilet roll and soap don’t seem to exist.

An office with a view! But the wifi reception was really poor though!

Computer, tablet, smart phone, ipod, e – reader, camera? The jury’s out on whether you should take gadgets traveling. They will take up more space, need regular charging and you will need to look out for your stuff a lot more and be careful to make sure your valuables and gadgets are not lost, damaged or stolen. Some would say it is good to switch off but traveling with gadgets can also enhance your travels. Perhaps take one device, like a smart phone, that can do multiple things – take photos, listen to music, connect to wifi so you keep in touch with people back home.

Personally I can’t live without my gadgets, I travel with a smart phone, camera, a netbook (rather than full size computer) to save space and an e-reader as it’s lighter than books and the battery outlasts everything else on those long bus journeys. If you are taking your smart phone get it unlocked before you leave and stick a local sim card in it to avoid high roaming charges.

Apply this rule – take half the clothes and double the money and you’ll be fine. Don’t stress too much about packing – in South East Asia you will never be very far away from a cheap shopping opportunity.

Lugging too much stuff around is never fun but shopping for new funky clothes is!

Markets in South East Asia are great places to try your luck haggling for a bargain

Ready to go? Many backpackers start their South East Asian adventure in Thailand. Check out my guide – First Time in Bangkok – Things to do

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