Bloggers have been sharing their tips about Southeast Asia since the beginning of time. This article has been done a thousand times before (here, here, and here, for example) but oh well I’m doing it anyways!
Before assembling things, let’s get in the right mindset. Some basic ideas to remember about packing light for SEA:
- Pack things that don’t wrinkle or don’t look bad when they are wrinkled. Cotton is good, and it’s breathable for the hot and humid weather.
- Pack things that you don’t care about. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT! Don’t bring anything valuable (excluding maybe your passport, camera, and iPod/phone). Your clothes are going to fall apart, get dirty, stained with neon paint, lost…etc. If you care about them, you will just have your heart broken and be sad.
- Bring lots of the little things but only a few of the big things. Bring lots of earrings, if you want, but stick to one or two pairs of shoes.
- Pack things that have more than one function. A sarong can be used as a towel for showering, a towel for the beach, a blanket/shawl for night buses…
- No extras! Buy it there. You could probably show up to Bangkok with nothing more than the clothes on your back and buy everything you need on Khao San Road (including a backpack!). Actually, that’s not a bad idea…
I don’t recommend carrying a backpack any larger than 60 liters. You do not need all them 80+ liters on your back, I promise! That shit is heavy, it doesn’t fit on the plane, and you simply don’t need that much stuff, especially in Southeast Asia where the weather is a balmy 1000 degrees Fahreinheit 24/7. If Kristin Addis can do a year in SEA with 35 liters, you can handle one month with 60.
I bought my backpack on Khao San Road for 800 baht. It was a 55-liter (?? I mean really who knows how many liters it was – it’s a knock-off from Khao San Road), orange/black school-style beauty that lasted my entire four-month trip. (We had a little bump in Varanasi, but the man with the sewing machine on the street fixed my pack for 30 rupees and everything was cool from then on out. I only recommend traveling with a less-than-trusted-quality pack if you’re in a country in which it would be easy and cheap to fix or replace your pack if it fails you. Otherwise, a nice pack is a great investment.)
I have since upgraded to proper backpack I picked up at REI – the Gregory Jade 60 in an XS. It looks like they’ve discontinued the exact style of my Gregory backpack, but they have a few others that are similar, including my pack in a 70 liter version.
Basically you need all of the things you would take on a two-week trip, and then, if you’re staying longer, you wash and reuse, wash and reuse, lose and replace…you get the picture.
Bathing suits. If you’re spending a lot of time at the beach, bring a few. They’re small and compact so it’s okay. You can buy them there but I always had trouble finding cheap ones that fit.
Lightweight, loose tanks. Easy and cheap to buy there.
Lightweight temple-appropriate clothes (covering knees and shoulders). Some temples are cool if you use a scarf to cover your shoulder but others are stricter and require an actual sleeved shirt on top. For the bottom I would recommend either a long skirt or some comfy elephant pants (There’s probably a more technical term for this particular pants style but you know what I mean!)
Shorts. 1 soft/sporty pair for sleeping and activities; one jean/casual pair for “going out” and walking around.
Shoes. Depending on how important your feet are to you, this is your moment to invest in something quality before your trip. It also depends on what you’re planning on doing while in SEA, because if I’m being honest, I didn’t really wear shoes all that much while I was on the beaches.
That being said, I traveled with two pairs of shoes: 1) Chacos. Not the cutest, but great for trekking (especially in mud), wandering the city, and surviving any rainstorm without slipping or ruining your shoes. 2) Rubber flats that I bought in Bangkok. They’re like 150 baht, come in sparkly colors, and mould to your feet. They look nicer to me than flip flops, and they don’t fall apart as easily but they serve the same purpose as flip flops if you wanna bring those instead. If you’re going to bring three pairs of shoes, I would make the third a pair of sneakers. I don’t know, though – I never needed them.
Scarf. Easy and cheap to buy there. Great for covering shoulders at temples or in air-conditioning.
A note on bras: I already hate wearing bras but when you add the heat and humidity, the idea becomes even more unappealing to me. For this reason, I tended to stick to shirts and dresses that didn’t need bras. When necessary, I wore sports bras (I had about four with me) and did carry one nude-colored basic T-shirt underwire one as well that I didn’t really use until Europe. Do be warned: it’s REALLY difficult to shop for bras in Thailand. I’m pretty tiny but still found every bra I tried on was too narrow for my frame. I ended up getting one at Tesco Lotus in the end.
Small pot of Vaseline. Ah, an item with multiple uses. It can serve as your makeup remover, your chapstick, and your blister salve.
Nail clippers. One of those necessities you don’t always remember.
Nail polish and remover. This is one of those cases of I-am-so-sick-of-these-clothes-I-need-to-decorate-myself-somehow. I also bring cuticle clippers cause I’m weird about my nails being nice.
The barest makeup necessities. Bring concealer. You may sweat it off on a night out, but it will make you feel better to have it if you’re breaking outt. Plus, who wants pimples in your travel photos? I also brought eyeliner and one lipstick.
Cheap jewelry. Or buy it there. Decorate yourself, but don’t become attached to anything because, again, it will break or get lost or something. I wore my hair up a lot so earrings were a fun way to change up an old outfit. I wore the same long gold amulet necklace for a while. It matched every outfit and became sort of my trademark.
SUNSCREEN. It costs a fortune in SE Asia so you might as well bring at least a small amount from home.
If you’re going to bring shampoo/conditioner, do bring travel sized bottles. Or you can just buy it when you get there – it’s like 30 baht from 7-eleven.
Bring extra prescription meds and contact lenses, obviously. Maybe carry some pain killers on you for the plane ride just in case, but if you need any other meds (like Cipro for travelers’ diarrhea or antifungals for yeast infections or anything else really) you can get them there.
Deodorant. They have lots of roll-on there but it’s hard to find the solid stuff.
Razor blades. I highly recommend bringing extras if you use a razor with a replaceable head. Shaving is simply not that popular in SEA so it’s difficult/expensive to find razor blades.
Condoms. I’ve been told the ones sold in SEA are smaller than the ones sold in America. Why not bring a few from home, you know, just in case?
Tampons. Another item that’s just not so popular amongst the native SEA population. They have OB ones (the ones without applicators) and trust me, you WILL get used to them. But if you have extra room bring your fancy Tampax Pearls. It will be a treat to have.
What do you need to pass idle time? Journal? iPod? Surely there will be a ton of idle time on buses/trains/waiting around places. I really like to read and write when I’m on the road.
Journal and pen. Might I recommend a journal with a plastic cover?
iPhone. Not a necessity at all. There are cheap Internet cafes everywhere. But if you want to take advantage of the ubiquitous free Wifi and you’re planning on being super duper careful with your phone, then sure, bring it.
Superglue. Or you can buy it there once you need it. And I bet you will need it.
EARPLUGS. GOOD LORD JUST BRING THEM YOU WILL BE SO HAPPY YOU DID. I like the moldable silicone ones:
Eye shade. I like em but it’s up to you really.
Sarong. Or quick-dry towel but I actually would recommend a sarong instead, simply because it has more uses (beach!). You can get one there for cheap.
Padlock. Bring it. You will probably need it in hostels.
Postcards or small gifts. Postcards from home or from your previous destination are great for thank you notes, and small gifts are very much appreciated – and common – in SEA.
Compressible daypack/purse/satchel/whatever. For a day out. I had the red satchel/purse and also a small backpack that folded up into a pillow sort of thing that I clipped to my backpack.
Passport. Pretttttty important.
Extra passport photos. Not necessary since you can get them done there if you need them, but if you have them lying around, bring em.
Copies of all your documents. I bring copies of my passport and of my cards (credit, debit, ID card).
Travel guidebook. I like to write notes to myself in my Lonely Planet. It’s a very useful resource, given you understand how to use it.
A watch. Essential in my case since I didn’t have a cellphone most of the time. It’s going to fall apart/break so don’t bring a valuable one. You can get one there for cheap.
Sunglasses. You can buy them there for cheap but if you are OCD like me about them have UV protection, I would grab some from Target before you go.
What Not to Bring
Rain gear/umbrella. You can get it there, and you probably won’t even use it. When it rains in SEA, it POURS so you’ll probably just stay inside anyways.
Blow dryer/straightener. Not gonna happen. Let your hair be free! In the humidity you really have no choice.
Jeans/pants (trousers). Nope. Too hot.
Sleeping bag. You just don’t need it.
Well, that’s all I got for now. Anything important you think I left out?