What to Pack for Backpacking in Southeast Asia

01/14/2013

I’ve read about packing lists ad nauseam on the interwebs.  They usually consist of various clothing options and toiletries, but lack the hindsight of someone who has been traveling around with her turtle shell — that would be, my 35L backpack — for the long haul.

I realize it’s not really that useful to know how many Megan Fox and in-the-tubing tank tops and hippie pants I roll around with, but after four months, you might appreciate knowing what has turned out to be completely essential, and what I ended up ditching during the past four months spent in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

Bring from home:

Pacsafe Bag Protector and Pacsafe Shoulder Bag

I’ve often found myself in dorms that did not have lockers.  When you find yourself in $2 accommodation, sometimes the amenities, as it were, are lacking. In these cases, I find that I have more peace of mind when I can lock up my valuables.

Simply slip the rain jacket that came with your pack over the bag, then slide the Pacsafe over it and lock it.

Microfiber Towel

Plenty of the dorms I’ve been in, as well as the meditation center, did not provide towels. If they did, they charged handsomely for them.  My microfiber became very handy to me on many more than just one occasion. Extra points for the quick drying time.

Bank account that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and refunds ATM fees

I can use any ATM I want, regardless of the fee the it charges.  I don’t have to worry about it, because my bank refunds all ATM fees at the end of the month – even foreign ones.  What’s more, I am not charged foreign transaction fees.  This amounts to a good $20, minimum, each month that I am saving.  That’s a big chunk of change when you consider that $6 is the typical cost of a guest house room in Southeast Asia.

I use Charles Schwab, and have always found them to have great customer service.  I’ve heard others say they like using PayPal. Do some searching before embarking on your trip and see what bank could work best for you.

Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Cube

This has been one of the best investments I’ve made (at pretty low cost, at that) in my peace of mind and organization.  I don’t have to dig through a mess of clothing to get to anything else in my pack – I simply take the cube in and out as needed and keep dirty clothing on one side, and clean on the other. It also makes it possible for me to be able to fit everything a into a small pack.

tip: roll your clothing and stack side-by-side in the cube to conserve even more space.

Laptop and unlocked phone 

If you plan on doing any work from the road, or desire to be connected, watch movies, or save files without relying on internet cafes (and their hours, dingy computers, and gross chairs), bring your own computer.  I travel with a 13-inch Macbook Air which takes up very little space and weighs next to nothing.  If you don’t have the budget for Apple products, a Netbook is a great alternative.

More than that, my unlocked iPhone has been a God-send.  In each country, I buy a cheap SIM card and I’m equipped with 3G, which often works better than wifi.  I simply turn my phone into a hot spot, connect my laptop, and BOOM, I’m in business.

Frankly, I was still under contract when I left the states.  I put my phone on a $10/month, “maintenance mode” in order to avoid the fee for canceling my two-year contract.  If I had not been under contract, I could have easily unlocked my phone for free.  Since I was, however, my carrier would not unlock the phone, so I had to use a third party website to the tune of £50 to unlock the darn thing (I’d rather not link them here but if you want the info, feel free to contact me).  Still, it has been totally worth it to be connected without paying exorbitant roaming fees to my carrier back home.

Razors, Deodorant, and (ladies only) DivaCup

It is rather difficult to find Venus razors, Secret Clinical Strength Deodorant (if you’re a sweaty mess like me, which Southeast Asia tends to bring out in people), and the like.  Things like soap, Pantene products, and face wash can all be found on the road, but specific items such as the previously mentioned are nearly impossible to find.

Lastly, a diva cup is a helpful investment. It’s a more environmentally friendly and less inconvenient way of dealing with the monthly visitor we ladies have all come to know and loathe.

Travel Insurance

Though healthcare services in Southeast Asia can be cheap for minor issues, if you have an issue SCUBA diving, break a limb while trekking, or come down with an illness like dengue fever (not uncommon in SE Asia and there is nothing you can take to prevent it) and need to be hospitalized, you’re looking at some hefty bills. Travel Insurance is not very expensive and can help you get home or to a country with better medical care if you need to. It can also pay for a loved one to come to you.

Buy it there: 

Tiger Balm – I foolishly bought this amazing camphor and menthol cream at a specialty store in California for $12, only to find it in Cambodia for $1.  It helps ease mosquito bites far better than cortisone cream, and soothes muscle aches.

Clothing – Don’t overdo it and bring too many clothes with you.  They are cheap in Southeast Asia and can be found in every night market for just a few dollars.  You’ll lose plenty of items to the laundry service (they’ll get lost in the shuffle and you simply won’t notice), holes, or deciding you simply would prefer the cool and different clothing you find on the road to the boring ones from home.

Buy hippie pants without having to agonize over ditching a pair of much more expensive pants from home.  Just bring the minimum you need and leave room for cheap purchases on the road.  You’ll fare better in the Southeast Asian climate.

Most Toiletries – No need to load up on shampoo and soap.  They use these things in Southeast Asia, too.

Leave it at home:

Jeans – Just don’t bring them.  They never dry, will make you entirely too hot, and are likely to chafe in the humidity.  None of these are pleasant things.

Laundry line – I never use mine.  It’s so cheap to have laundry done for you, and takes so much less time, there’s not much use in taking an hour here and there to hand-wash clothing in a shared dorm sink, find a place to hang them up, and wait around until it’s time to take them down.

Sleeping bag liner – I ditched mine three weeks in.  It took up too much space and never presented a value.  It won’t protect you against bed bugs.  Only knowing how to check for signs of them can help you.

Mosquito net – They’re available where needed at hostels and dorms on the road.

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66 comments

  1. I totally disagree about the sleeping liner! I bought a silk one at home (and was bummed to see they were a fraction of the price in Vietnam) and it packs down really small (the size of a fat deck of cards). I love it for the temperatures here and it’s really roomy too. I didn’t use it at all in Korea or Japan but in SE Asia it’s a real comfort factor for me.

    1. Yeah, I’ve got to agree with Rachel – a sleeping bag liner is essential! Especially if you’re on a budget and not guaranteed to stay in a clean hostel every night. I used a Cocoon Travel Sheet, it was very breathable and packs down tiny.

    1. I don’t have them and I definitely don’t wish I did. I DO wish I had more room in my bag for hippie pants, though. It’s not everywhere that you can walk around in elephant print pants and it’s totally acceptable.

      1. I thought the same thing. I fell in love with hippie pants in Thailand and wondered how it would go over back at my teaching gig in Korea. I still wear them all the time. This week alone, I’ve worn them 4 days. The weather gets so hot here, having a few has been a blessing!

  2. Great tips. Only if I knew it before. Just came back from 6 month backpacking trip from in South-East Asia and forgot to pack some things you mention. My bad!

  3. The jeans one is a really good tip. I take a pair everywhere and probably would have realized that was a mistake. Will have to pickup packing cubes too. Sometimes ziplocks and plastic bags don’t do the job.

  4. I want to add to this list – a hoboroll. Google it (no I’m not paid to sponsor them!) – it’s a really great way to smash your clothes and soft objects down to a much smaller size, but it is divided so you can keep things separated and easy to find. BRILLZ.

  5. I wanted to add — as an alternative to the Diva Cup (which I just don’t love, sorry!) get Implanon birth control before leaving.

          1. I have it, it lasts 3 years, and I have no periods at all, although this can change in the last year. I had it replaced early so I don’t need to worry about carrying tampons or moon cups or anything when I leave for Asia in April (for 5 months). So excited! Great blog by the way, am making lots of notes and am going to see if I can sew myself a compression pack from all the bits of camping baggage I have in my cellar!

  6. I couldn’t agree more about the deodorant. I have been able to find it here, but it always has weird skin whitening ingredients in it – I don’t really know what goes into whitening products, but it doesn’t seem like something I want to be slathering on my armpits on a daily basis.

    1. Yeahhh… I’m not super into the whitening stuff. I’m not sure why I’d be concerned about white armpits anyways. They don’t exactly face the sun. Weirdness.

  7. Great list! Tiger balm is must, especially after a long hike around town. I was trying to think about what else to add, but I think you got them all…. Maybe extra battery chargers? haha

  8. This list is really useful! It’s hard to know what are essential to bring on a trip. I leave in 5 days and I plan on bringing plenty of Deodorant! I am undecided what clothes to bring though! I don’t want to bring too much but I’m scared that I won’t like the style of clothes in SE Asia

    1. In general, I find when I travel places, I want to fit in with what people are wearing locally. Clothes in SE Asia are super comfortable, and otherwise are just tank tops and t-shirts with funny or cool prints on them. When in Rome, know what I mean?

    1. It will draw attention, so make sure you’re careful with it. Mostly other travelers have eyed it, and sadly, they sometimes are the ones you need to watch out for. I have a 13-inch and love it.

  9. Great post!!!
    So much useful info for us to take away! Your making us reconsider our check in packs for just carry-ons!
    A major thing we used in Costa Rica was a Pac-safe, Safe. Worked awesome for us, easy to roll up and store, and with a Kevlar coding and wire mesh sewn in, and great locking system it was a major must. Pelican also has a sick case built for your 13″ or 11″ notebook with double locking systems. you may find them cheaper over there. And the best part is they are water tight and almost indestructible.

    Thankx again for the great tips.
    Aroundtheworldforhappiness recently posted…Natures living night lightsMy Profile

    1. Hey Laura,
      I tried to respond on your post but it won’t let me comment :(

      Here’s my take: You had asked me for some feedback on your list and I’m sorry I’m a little late getting back to you. I love the opener, what do you want on your back when you’re in a hot environment? I’d have to say, not a 60-litre bag! Cut the size down! I travel with a bag almost half that size and I’m so glad that I do. I can’t think of a time when I needed duct tape – plus, it’s heavy. That’s a lot of socks when you’ll mostly be wearing flip flops. You can buy sunscreen abroad. Bring one pair of trainers. Do not bring jeans – they never dry and they’re horrible in humidity. Just bring the jacket and leave out the long-sleeved shirts. There, I just cut your pack in half for you ;)

  10. I’ll be traveling soon in a month, looking for that little house :-) My strategy was taking a small backpack and a carry-on suitcase. But you inspired me to ditch the suitcase, the less the better. I will bring supplements though, they are hard to find (or expensive) in SE-A (and I guess in Central America too) Good probiotics saved me from food poisoning twice, so that’s a must have. Those Packit-cubes are super!

  11. There is only one thing i don’t agree on : JEANS!
    I am so glad i brought them with me (also traveling trough south east asia)

    They saved me big time for many occasions, and i wear them almost every day now! If i had to choose only ONE item to bring with me i’d had no doubt: Jeans 100% :)
    kle recently posted…5 Reasons to Visit Sardinia in September-OctoberMy Profile

    1. Wow really? I would look at people in jeans and could only think one thing: chafing. I love them at home but in 90 degrees with 90% humidity? Wow, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one!

  12. Love the packing list – i’ll be heading out on my own SE asia trip in a few months and am soo looking forward to it!

    One question I have is what shoes did you travel SE asia with, i’m thinking some type of sturdy walking/hiking shoe and then sandals. My go to is genearlly flip flops but those kind of suck for walking in, just curious what you went with?

    1. I had a pair of running shoes and went through several pairs of cheap flip flops. I live in them in California so I don’t think they suck to walk in. You’d be surprised how many of my friends didn’t even use shoes!

  13. I tried not bringing a lot of clothes but in SEAsia the size large doesn’t seem to exist. Any suggestion on this? I am size 10 not that is called XL.

    1. I still see large sizes but you’re right, it’s not as easy to find. I remember shoes were almost impossible for me in Taiwan.

  14. Hi Kristin!

    Great pointers, especially regarding the microfibre towel – they’re good to take pretty much everywhere, fast drying, they’re lightweight and they can double up as a pillow if you’re fed up of sticking your face to the windows on an overnight bus!

    I found your site through this article and I’ll be sure to subscribe and stay up to date, I love what you’re doing – I’m leaving the UK in a few weeks to do similar thing myself – and reading about your experiences has put my travel bug into turbo.

    I hope this comment finds you warm and safe!

    Take care, Dan
    Dan recently posted…Jan 1, Why I quit my job to travel the worldMy Profile

    1. Thanks so much. Good point about the towel doubling as a pillow! Could be a blanket too if it’s big enough but mine’s pretty small.

  15. I bought the Scrubba Wash Bag and have saved a lot of effort and money by doing so. yes it is about $50 to start with, but if you’re on a long trip you waste so much time handwashing/ you waste so much money getting clothes washed for you (A few dollars here and there soon add up!). It also doubles as a way to keep dirty and clean clothes separate and a water bladder.

  16. Just wondering about the pac safe bag protector… Does anyone else have experience using this and is it really worth bringing? I was wondering what I could do with my backpack/passport if theres no safe place to put them.

  17. I’m going to SE Asia in a few weeks, and I’m one of those people with super pale skin who needs a TON of sunscreen. I read that sunscreen was really expensive and many brands had whiteners in them. I was wondering if you knew if this was the case? I don’t want to waste all my travel on liquids with sunscreen. I asked my sister who is living in the Philippines and all she said was “There’s sunscreen here.” But I don’t think she wears it so she didn’t really tell me about the price or anything.

  18. Hi there! What did your bag end up weighing? And what did you do with your extra cash while swimming? Did you shove some in your swimsuit?

    I love this blog, fyi.

    1. Haha no I wouldn’t suggest putting it in your bathing suit. At least one person should always remain on the beach watching the bags, or if you’re solo, just don’t bring anything valuable to the beach with you. Leave it in the bungalow. Chances are it won’t be far away.

    2. Haha no I wouldn’t suggest putting it in your bathing suit. At least one person should always remain on the beach watching the bags, or if you’re solo, just don’t bring anything valuable to the beach with you. Leave it in the bungalow. Chances are it won’t be far away.

      I can’t recall what the bag weighed. When I checked into flights I kept it on my back and said I simply didn’t have any check in luggage. They never asked to weigh it. I’m sure it would have been over the limit, so don’t try that on a carrier like Ryan Air.

  19. Hi Kristin, what type (and or brand) of shoes do you recommend for backpacking around SE Asia? I assume I will need a sturdy, durable but breathable pair for hiking/walking around Indonesia (and possibly Malaysia an Thailand) for several months this fall/winter. Your insight and advice is much appreciate. Happy Travels! Haley

    1. I just had some running shoes and cheap rubber flip flops that I had to keep replacing on the road. I even did the Annapurna circuit hike in Nepal in running shoes, in the snow. I know that’s not advisable, though, and most people thought I was crazy. I’d suggest hiking shoes you’ve already broken in, but if you won’t be doing a ton of hiking, I think running shoes might be more useful and less bulky.

  20. Awesome post – thank you so much!

    I have a question about your health insurance. We have World Nomads insurance, but do you have a “back up” policy? We are worried that if something happens while we are abroad, and we have to c ome home and have surgery our an ACL, or something – that we wont be covered, and be in debt $50,000 or some other heinous amount of money. Do you have any experience/reseach/thoughts on something like that?

    As always, thanks so much for any feedback!

    1. You could have major medical insurance back home to cover things like that if you’re worried about it. They do cover you if you need to be flown out to a better place for surgery, and for you to have a family member with you.

  21. Great Blog Kristin. I am planning on a three month trip next year through SE Asia…alone. I have never done any traveling like this… any books/websites/youtube channels you can recommend me reading/viewing? Thanks a lot!

    1. That’s basically what my entire blog is about, but you’d probably also like Vagabonding by Rolf Potts (though I haven’t read it myself, I certainly intend to)

  22. Hi! I am planning a trip to SEA next year and I’m wondering if anyone packed a hydration back/camelback? Or would a water bottle suffice? Or would I even need one?

    1. The trouble is you’ll need a steripen or iodine tablets to clean the water unless you just pour bottled water into your camelback, which kind of defeats the purpose for me.

  23. Hi Kristin, I am a huge fan of your blog. You have so much useful advice. What backpack to you use? The link on this post doesn’t work and I didn’t see it listed anywhere else. Thx!

    1. I removed the link since REI changed something about the way they advertise. It’s an REI Vagabond front load 35L (although the photos say it’s 40). I’d suggest going to an REI and trying backpacks on with weight in them. The staff are super helpful there, usually.

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