Updated: Aug 24, 2019
Imagine: You have landed in a hot, tropical country for the first time. You have just left the airport and you start wandering around looking for transportation into the main part of the city. It's been less than 10 minutes, you feel lost and you are already soaked with sweat from the heat of the sun and from carrying... your giant 55 litre backpack.
Nope, no thank you. Not for us.
After travelling in Europe for 4 months with our giant 55-60 litre backpacks, we agreed we needed to downsize our gear for the Southeast Asian leg of our adventure. The thought of carrying extra weight around while wandering around in a hot Asian climate was the last thing we wanted!
We asked some seasoned travellers what they felt we absolutely needed to bring to Southeast Asia so we could bring less stuff.
Here's what we learned:
Sidewalks are incredibly uneven or nonexistent so rolling luggage isn’t always the most convenient. Backpacks are the way to go!
Your goal should be to fit everything into one backpack that’s less than 30 litres (and possibly an additional tiny back/purse). Flights are cheap to get around but charge extra for baggage over 7kg (15 lbs).
The laundry services in Southeast Asia are also EXCEPTIONAL and it means you don't have to pack as much stuff. Prices range from country to country but they will wash, hang dry and fold all of your items within 24 hours. We recommend you write down what you give to be washed to make sure all of your items are returned. It's super safe and convenient!
If you forget ANYTHING or feel like you’ve under-packed, you can buy things easily in marketplaces or malls. Be aware that clothing fits “petite” sizes so definitely pack enough bottoms.
See below for the packing list (and specific items) that we would recommend based on our experiences in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines during their dry seasons (January to April). These recommendations are our own and can apply to other countries in Southeast Asia.
25 litre backpack (we used Osprey ones)
Purse/ day back with good zippers to use to carry water etc.
Reusable water bottle (recommend one that can stay cold such an aluminium one)
Locker lock to secure your belongings in your accommodations
Baggage lock (regardless of where you’re staying for the zippers on your bags)
Hat (for the beach, sea kayaking etc.)
Sunglasses and a solid case (so they don't get crushed in your bag)
Breathable water proof rain jacket
Photography device (mobile phone, GoPro, camera etc.)
Phone and camera charger(s)
Travel First Aid Kit
Outlet converter (we love the Tessan International Travel Plug Adaptor)
1-2 bathing suits
1-2 pairs of shorts
2-4 shirts (lighter colours are best). Idea types: light cotton, dry fit, or merino wool (we like Icebreaker clothing because it’s quick dry and odour resistant)
1 shirt that covers your shoulders (or a scarf) or be prepared to buy one if you want to visit any temples
1 longer pair of shorts/shirt for temple visits
2 tank tops/muscle shirts
4-6 pairs of underwear
1-2 pairs of socks (merino wool ones can be warn multiple times with no odour)
Walking sandals (some temples won’t let you visit if you’re wearing flip flops)
Running shoes (only if you plan on doing extensive exploring or riding a scooter, it’s hot and you won’t want to wear them very much)
Flip flops (for beach and/or showering in hostels). You can buy them while you are there, but they might not have your size if you’re larger than size 8 US
Photocopies of passport and identification (see our Preparation Guide for rationale)
Earplugs (helpful if you plan on staying in hostel dorm rooms)
Bug repellent with DEET
Sun screen (buying sunscreen there is expensive, only sold in small bottles and often has “whiteners” in it made from bleach). Consider also choosing a Reef Safe sunscreen
Shampoo/body soap bars (we enjoy ones from LUSH because they're environmentally friendly and helped to reduce the amount of liquids we were carrying)
Bamboo toothbrush (helps to reduce plastic waste, can be ordered from Amazon)
Travel hair brush (one that folds with a mirror is the most helpful)
Toilet paper/packages of tissue (not all washrooms have it). Note: you cannot throw toilet paper into the toilet!! They have trash cans for disposal
Inflatable neck pillow (amazing for long journeys and won't take up too much space)
Pen (helpful on your flight when they ask you to complete your entrance VISA form)
Most valuable packing advice:
Bring rehydration tablets. It’s HOT and sometimes people confuse symptoms of dehydration with “food poisoning” - this includes cramps, nausea, diarrhoea and clammy skin. These tablets are inexpensive and can be purchased in sports stores like Sport Chek (or anywhere that sells gear for runners, marathons etc.). You add them as needed to your water bottle to restore your electrolytes (like intense gatorade).
Here's a list of some optional items to consider, along with our rationale as to why you might or might not need it:
Towel. Most places will provide bath towels or they are available for rent (not expensive and worth it to save the space in your luggage). If you really want to bring one, we recommend a “microfibre” one. They are more compact and dry almost immediately once they are hung up (can be purchased on Amazon or most adventure stores). For the beach a lot of people just go to the market and buy a cheap “serong” (bathing suit wrap) to lie on in the sand (since it’s so hot and you don’t need it for actually drying yourself).
Pants/leggings. Very few opportunities where you’d need these other than: if you’re flying in from or returning to a cold place, you plan to do any jungle trekking OR if you want to rent a motorcycle/ scooter and you want to protect your legs. It's VERY hot during the dry season and you likely won't want to wear pants.
Hiking boots. We carried these around for four months and only used twice them in Vietnam. Unless hiking/trekking is specifically on your itinerary, you likely can just use running shoes.
Metal travel straw/ life-straw (can be ordered from Amazon). Countries like Thailand and Cambodia are trying to become plastic free!
Packing cubes (can be ordered from Amazon). They are compact, zippered bags that are SUPER helpful for organizing your stuff in your luggage or backpack. Order small and medium sized ones for your backpack.
Small laundry bag (sometimes comes with packing cubes). Helps to separate dirty clothes from your clean ones and to give the whole bag to the laundry service.
Feminine hygiene products. Tampons, sanitary pads etc. are available for sale in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines (they just might not have the brands or styles that you prefer). If you want to help reduce waste and cost, you can also consider reusable options.
Snorkelling equipment. Lots of places you stay at will have some that you can borrow/rent.
Face mask/balaclava. In some larger cities the air quality is poor and so locals will wear a mask that covers their nose/mouth (similar to a medical mask from a hospital). We were in Thailand in January and felt fine, but would have liked one when we returned in April after their burning season because the air quality was poorer.
Headband/scarf. It is HOT and having a fabric headband regardless of the length of your hair can be helpful. We enjoy the BUFF brand! They even make some for really hot temperatures (just read the label) and can double as a face mask if you’d like.
Journal. Reflect on your awesome adventures and to remember what you’ve done!
eReader. Great alternative to carrying lots of books if you plan on reading.
Playing cards. Helps to have when you're waiting for a bus etc. and to make new friends.
iPod. Only bring if you aren't using your phone as a music player.
Post-it notes. Helpful when writing down where you’re staying and the phone number to give to taxi drivers, leaving notes for your roommates, saying thank you to hostels/ cleaning staff.
Laptops/tablets. if you’re travelling in a group, have someone bring one for everyone. Wifi is also great and available almost everywhere. Many hostels also have computer stations for guests to use.
Want to read more about travelling to Southeast Asia? Check out our additional post:
Coming soon: individual guides, budgets and stories for Southeast Asia!
-Greg & Krystal