What to pack for a long, backpacking trip to South Asia/ South East Asia?

Before going for my first backpacking voyage, I’d spent a long time reading posts about packing. Everybody stressed the importance of going light-weight and being a minimalist. I found all of the clothes I packed useful. I also bought some clothes while I was travelling.

Below you can find a list of things I packed plus some explanations so that you can decide whether it’s applicable for you or not. The list is meant for a female traveler.

To carry better than to buy?

Some things necessary for travel could be easily found in Asia but others are either hard to find or expensive so it’s good to be prepared. I believe it’s better to carry something than to regret taking it and this attitude worked well for me. Yes, my backpack was quite heavy at 11 kg but actually, you don’t carry the backpack all the time – it’s not a hiking trip.

SHOES to pack to South East Asia

  • hiking boots
  • sport sandals
  • flip flops

I’ve come across many blogs which said just flip-flops or comfortable walking sandals would be perfectly OK for travel in South/South East Asia. My husband took sports sandals and flip-flops and was happy with his choice. I’d be devastated if I didn’t take my hiking boots, so it all comes down to your tolerance to cold and comfort/safety when hiking.

Pros and cons of flip flops

Unless you are just thinking of staying on the beach or roaming around very leisurely, I’d discourage you from relying on flip- flops. They are really bad for walking. I made a mistake of walking large distances on tarmac wearing flip-flops and developed chronic pain in the soles of my feet. Flip- flops are also very impractical when you’re cycling or even walking in a crowd or where there is lots of dirt and garbage on the streets.

Don’t make a mistake of ditching them altogether. Flip-flops are useful for other things: short strolls in the hot weather, going to a temple (as it’s easy to take them off and they’re unlikely to get stolen), beach, having a shower in a shared bathroom and so on.

Sport sandals – the ideal shoes for Asia

In my opinion, the most versatile shoewear for Asia are sport sandals. I was really happy with my closed toes, water sandals. I swam in them, hiked and climbed on short distances and used them for long-distance walking and cycling.

Hiking boots: are they useful in South Asia?

Nevertheless, hiking boots proved REALLY useful on a couple of occasions. If you enjoy hiking and know you’re going to do it when in Asia, nothing can beat hiking boots, with their ankle support and good grip. Logically, the higher you hike, the colder it will be so you might be grateful for extra warmth, especially if it’s misty or raining.

A selfie of legs and wet and muddy hiking boots after a hike in Vietnam

Last but not least, boots and long socks are the best barrier against the leeches which are common in tropical forests of South East Asia. Nothing illustrates it better than my husbands’ feet bleeding from wounds inflicted by no less than 20 leeches on our hike in Vietnam. None of the leeches which attacked me managed to bite through the boots and socks before I peeled them off.

The huge downside of boots, apart from their weight is the fact they dry really slowly. I had to wash my pair of boots after they got extremely muddy when I was hiking in Vietnam. In the cool and wet weather we were experiencing there, 3 days weren’t enough to dry them and they ended up getting really smelly.

CLOTHES to pack to South East Asia

  • 3 short sleeved t-shirts
  • 2 sleeveless tops
  • 1 fleece
  • 1 light 3/4 sleeved shirt for modesty and slightly chilly weather
  • 1 lightweight rainproof jacket and/or poncho
  • 1 ultralight down/synthetic down jacket [optional]
  • 1 light, long or knee-length trousers
  • 1 convertible hiking trousers [optional]
  • 1 knee-length skirt
  • 1 leggings
  • 1 swimwear
  • 1 hat or baseball cap
  • 2 bamboo bras
  • 3-4 bamboo panties
  • 2-3 bamboo socks

Don’t take tight- fitting clothes to tropical countries!

My major mistake was taking two tightly fitting bamboo tank tops. Bamboo was supposed to be this magical material which is breathable, absorbs all sweat and dries quickly. In fact, dark stains of sweats were showing just after a few minutes of exposure to the tropical heat.

I developed a nasty looking prickly heat on the side of my body and I believe it had something to do with the tight- fitting clothes. Also, I ended up covering my shoulders in many countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India) where tank tops are considered too revealing by the locals.

Only the very thin, organic bamboo t-shirt worked well for me so my suggestion is: choose loose-fitting, light, ultra-thin cotton or bamboo tops, ideally more t-shirts than tank tops.

Author sitting on the steps of the very decorative stairs of a Thai temple, wearing 'appropriate' clothes: long loose trousers and a shoulders covering top
A light, breathable top and ankle-length, light trousers: perfect for visiting temples, burning sun or cool evening

A light top: indispensable

One piece of clothing that proved to be very useful was a light, cotton breathable top in a practical colour (creme or beige would be best). It works great when you need to cover the shoulders when entering the temple, it protects the skin from the burning sun in the daytime and is useful for the cooler evenings.

Washing when backpacking

As for the number of clothes, don’t got too low as actually won’t be able to wash them ALL the time. The weather needs to be dry and warm enough to dry the clothes fast.

Travelling during the monsoon season, staying in the rain forest or in the mountains can be a challenge as the humidity is too high or the temperature too low to dry the clothes efficiently. To dry clothes before they start stinking, you would need to have an access to the strong, direct sunlight or a powerful fan.

In Vietnam, we often stayed in box rooms with AC which didn’t give us any chance to dry anything at all, the Thai rainforest was too humid and the Indian mountains too cold for that. To be on the safe side, have a set of clothes for an entire week (unless you don’t’ mind smelling a bit).

Don’t forget a decent nightwear

Think about your nightwear. You might need to cross an entire hostel to get to your room after having a shower in a shared bathroom or stay with the locals when Couch Surfing so having something decent to sleep in (remember: you should be culture-sensitive!) would be useful.

Ragged clothes are great

Be aware that most of your clothes will become rags after a few months long trip. In fact, it’d be a good idea to carry at least one ragged T-shirt. It might come useful for snorkeling (absolute must, otherwise you’d get severely burned) or swimming in places where bikini is a no-no (eg. swimming holes in Cambodia or Laos or some beaches in Sri Lanka).

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Ragged T-shirt and leggings: perfect for swimming in conservative countries or snorkeling

Girls, pack a skirt

A light skirt is a great choice as it’s breathable and best for really hot weather. It’s worth to go for medium-length not to offend the locals. Taking a long but light summer dress is quite a good idea as well. Apart from taking an ultra-light skirt, I bought a cheap dress at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok which survived till the end of the trip.

The author posing in front of the concubine quarters in the Imperial City of Hue, wearing a light skirt and 3/4 top

Light and/ or convertible trousers

Long, loose-fitting, light and breathable cotton trousers will be equally useful. They are not only decent but also will protect you from the sun as well as mosquitoes. You can bring those with you or buy on the spot (Thai pants are the best!).

I found synthetic hiking convertible trousers a bit too hot for the tropical climate. I used them for hiking in the mountains, covering the legs in the jungle or simply whenever it was cold. Their main advantages are lightness and the fact they dry really fast.

Girls, pack leggings instead of jeans

Leggings are very practical as they take much less space than trousers. They work perfectly for a long-distance journey on an air-conditioned bus. Be aware that if you’re wearing leggings, you should cover your bum and thighs with an extra layer in most of the places in South and South-East Asia.

One piece of clothes you definitely DON’T need are jeans: they’re heavy, take space, take ages to dry and are too hot for the climate.

Shorts would be useful only in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and some parts of Malaysia- whole legs shouldn’t be exposed in other countries of the region!

Waterproofs and warm layers are essential for backpacking

As for the waterproofs, they are absolutely necessary, especially if you travel in the monsoon season. We invested in very expensive light-weight waterproof jackets but I’d say we could have managed without them. They were great as wind-proofs when riding a scooter in the mountains and for lighter rain in the cooler climate.

The author wearing a thick, flower-pattern poncho leads a bicycle through a dirt road in the mountainous region of Laos

However, locally bought ponchos were more practical for the monsoon downpours because they covered the body till the knees and covered the backpack and a camera bag as well. The cheapest ponchos tore almost instantly. Invest in a thicker, slightly more expensive poncho which -with a little bit of care -could last a few months.

The author wearing hiking boots, convertible trousers,a jacket and a hat poses to a photo in the green , mist covered Dzuko Valley in India

South Asia isn’t always hot! There will be many places (mountains!) and times (monsoon) where and when the temperature would drop way below 15 degrees or less. Don’t forget long trousers, a fleece or maybe even a windproof jacket. If you’re heading for Himalayas, a light down jacket isn’t a bad idea.

Cover your head!

A hat or at least a bandana is a must: Asian sun is merciless and if you’re outdoors for the whole day, a risk of a sun stroke is real.

The author wearing a large-brim sunhat, watching the river Mekong

If you’re planning to travel in the wintertime or at the high altitudes, take also a light hat for keeping your head warm, together with gloves.

Underwear: how much is enough?

You really don’t need tons of underwear: they’re easy to hand-wash and dry. The climate is hot so unless you hike or spend a long time in air-conditioned vehicles, you won’t have that much use of the socks either. Take long, breathable socks if you’re carrying your hiking boots and a pair of light, short socks.

Even if you don’t wear bra at home, get yourself a comfy bamboo bra for the trip. If you really don’t want to wear one, make sure you cover up breast with and extra layer of clothes.

Backpacker’s clothes and local culture

Please, please, respect the local culture. Don’t be like that blonde in tank top and tight lycra leggings we saw jogging through ethnic minority villages in Vietnam or those bra-less, crop-top girls in shorts roaming around Siem Reap. behaving as if they were in Rio de Janeiro.

Thailand and Vietnam are very used to tourists and the local women themselves, particularly in big cities, wear sleeveless tops and shorts. They are still a bit shy on the beach, choosing shorts and tops over bikinis. You won’t shock anyone in those countries unless you really go over the top wearing a transparent top without a bra or thongs on the beach.

Laos and Cambodia, on the other hand, are still quite conservative. Nobody is going to stare at you or tell you anything, but wearing a bikini surrounded with fully dressed locals or exposing too much of legs and cleavage really won’t be cool. The same applies for Muslim areas in Malaysia.

India is more conservative regarding the dress code: you should cover your legs at least till the knees (and ideally also the cleavage and shoulders) to avoid unpleasant stares. The only place where you can wear pretty much anything without drawing attention is Goa.

The author standing behind an old building in Kolkata, wearing a kurta (Indian tunic) and leggings

Wherever you are, observe what the local women wear and try not to reveal more than them. If you’re entering the temple, cover further. The safest way to adjust to local culture is to wear what the locals do. It’s a particularly good idea in India- you’ll draw much less unwanted attention.

OTHER ESSENTIALS

  • 1 medium sized fast-drying towel/ local cotton sarong
  • 1 silk or synthetic sleeping bag liner
  • 1 mosquito net (check the dimensions!!!) [optional]

Towel vs. sarong

Another discovery I made is that fast-drying towel doesn’t dry as fast as an ultra-thin, cotton sarong in South East Asia or lungi/ gamcha (coarse-cotton towel) in India. Both work well as either bathroom or beach towels.

Author sitting on a rock on the Sri Lankan coastline, wrapped in a local cotton sarong, wearing a light shirt and a sun hat

Most of the time, even the cheapest accommodations in South East Asia and many in India would supply you with a towel. However, having your own towel for Couch Surfing, meditation course or rare occasions when it won’t be provided is a must.

Mosquito nets: to pack or not to pack?

Similarly, mosquito nets are usually provided (though less likely to be found in budget accommodations in India and Malaysia). It’s a good idea to check the mosquito net thoroughly as it’s likely to have holes. I found that the best way to fix the holes is to tie a rubber band around a piece of net containing the hole. Sometimes mosquito nets are fitted in the windows rather than hanged above the bed (which makes it more likely a mosquito would squeeze in). There are no mosquito nets provided in AC rooms or rooms without windows as USUALLY there is no need for them in such cases.

You might encounter a mosquito infested place with no mosquito net just once or twice during the entire trip.  If you fear that once or twice can be enough to contract malaria or dengue, carry your own mosquito net with you. Be aware, though, that sometimes it’s really tricky to attach it to something or hang it from somewhere so it might prove useless.

I got a travel mosquito net which turned out to be not only too small but also had a trapeze shape which didn’t really make sense. Even after lifting the edges with bottles, etc. it was still inevitable to touch it while sleeping. Make sure your mosquito net is large enough to fit a double bed and has a square shape. It’s going to be big, it’s going to be heavy. If you’re not malaria-paranoid, don’t bother.

Sleeping bag liner: great for India

In general, the cleanliness standard of budget accommodation in South East Asia is really high (as opposed to India where only more expensive accommodation guarantees sparkling clean linen). Occasionally, you might come across an odd homestay or a budget hotel where the bed linen is far from fresh. More often, the bedsheet will be clean but you might have doubts about the blanket provided as a cover. That’s when an ultra-light sleeping bag liner will come handy. It’s also useful for sleeping at the airports.

TOILETRIES to pack

  • nail clipper
  • toothbrush
  • travel hair brush
  • solid shampoo [optional]
  • moon cup or tampons
  • DEET/natural repellents
  • electric mosquito repellent with a couple refill bottles [optional]
  • sunblock
  • antibacterial gel

As for the cosmetics, I suggest buying them on the spot.  Basic toiletries are often provided at the accommodation so you might find that one soap and a small shampoo would last you for a month or two. Bringing a solid shampoo could be even a better option- it’s small, it’s not going to leak and will last you for up to 6 months.

Sanitary products when backpacking

Girls, tampons are very hard to find in South and South-East-Asia as locals don’t use them. If they are, there won’t be any choice in sizes and they’ll be much more expensive than pads- take your own supply.

Consider switching to eco-friendly moon cups. They would save you the trouble what to do with used sanitary products as many public toilets and even guesthouse rooms in Asia don’t have bins!

Mosquito repellents are a must!

Natural mosquito repellents are affordable and readily available across Asia. Very strong DEET- based repellents, on the other hand, are available only in very touristic places in Thailand. If you don’t trust citronella oil, take your supply of DEET. A huge supply as you’re likely to run out of it quickly.

Electric mosquito repellent will offer additional protection against mosquitoes inside your room. Remember to bring a few refill bottles as they won’t last long. The cheaper alternative are mosquito coils widely available in the region. Due to their strength, they are not suitable for indoor use, though.

Cosmetics harder to find/expensive in Asia

It’s better to take your own sunscreen, too. Locals protect themselves from the sun by covering up or using umbrellas. Unless it’s a very touristic spot such as a popular beach resort, getting a sunscreen, particularly a sunblock is going to be challenging. Moreover, even if you find one, it’s likely to be more expensive than at home.  I hunted for a sunscreen all over Hanoi (the capital city!), eventually finding only a whitening, anti-pollution serum with a 45 SPF filter.

Antibacterial gel is a very useful stuff. You’ll end up eating some snacks or sweets on the street for sure and after the whole day of travelling, disinfecting hands before eating might be a good idea.

MEDICINES to pack

  • 1st aid kit: disinfectant, band aids, bandage
  • antibacterial powder for faster wound healing
  • aloe vera for sun burns
  • anti-diarrhoea medicines and medicines aiding digestion
  • painkillers
  • anti-malaria pills [very much personal decision]

Pharmacies are pretty much everywhere. Rather than carrying a massive amount of medicines, we bought whatever we needed as we traveled. Any minor medical issues we encountered during our trip were dealt with by local pharmacists.

Medicines you can buy on the spot

I developed at some point prickly heat and had no problem finding medicinal talcum powder on Ko Lanta island. Sayak got a fungal skin infection which he treated with cheap, local creams bought at the pharmacies in middle-sized towns in Vietnam and Laos. Local pharmacies are inexpensive, unlike those at holiday resorts aiming at the Western clientele. I’d recommend taking your own aloe vera -a very efficient remedy for sunburn- which was quite expensive in Thailand. Of course it’d be much better to prevent the sunburn.

Anti-malaria pills – in most cases not essential

You have to decide whether you really need anti-malaria pills, especially if you’re going to travel for a long time, constantly in and out of the malaria zones.

The doctors and pharmacists in India and the veteran vagabonds all discouraged me from using anti-malarials- very strong medicines with lots of side effects which (as few people know) don’t even guarantee 100% protection from malaria.

The new generation anti-malaria drugs are a bit better but totally unaffordable in the long run. Chloroquine, widely available in Asia, is very cheap but it makes skin more sensitive to sun which isn’t very practical. All in all, the most important is the mosquitto bite prevention, especially that mosquitoes transmit not only malaria but also dengue and chikungunya.

USEFUL BITS to pack

  • padlock
  • head torch
  • safety pin
  • a few rubber bands
  • rope
  • small knife/ Swiss knife
  • 1l or 1.5l metal bottle
  • metal cup and immersion heater [optional]
  • collapsible bowl [optional]
DSC05744.JPG
Take a string to hang your food from to prevent little night visitors from getting to your supplies

Padlock comes useful, especially if you’re going to stay in hostels.

Torch comes handy during blackouts and when visiting caves.

Safety pins can save your clothes in need of mending but could also work as needle for removing splinters etc.

Take a string/ rope for tying a food bag from the ceiling so that mice don’t get it, or to hang the clothes to dry on the porch or balcony.

Backpackers utensil essential kit

If you don’t want to invest in a Swiss knife, at least get a small, sharp knife. It’s very useful to have fruit and breakfast at home.

A metal refillable bottle is a must. There will be plenty of countries where you can refill the water at the accommodation or in the street either for free or for a very small fee. Save money and reduce waste. If you care for the environment, take also a metal straw.

If you’re a stingy caffeine addict, take a metal cup and a small immersion water heater. It’ll save you lots of money if you buy instant coffee rather than going to coffee shops which aren’t a local thing in most of South and South East Asia (apart from Vietnam).

Consider taking one collapsible plastic bowl, useful for eating in a hotel room, whether it’s milk with cereals, bread or fruit. I ended up using (and re-using) plastic disposable plates for this purpose which was far from ideal.

ELECTRONICS to pack

  • tablet/small laptop with cover [optional]
  • smart phone with charger
  • camera with charger and extra battery
  • Go Pro or other action camera [optional]
  • Kindle with cover [optional]
  • portable charger
  • adaptor plug

Backpacking with electronic gadgets

Just how much electronic gadgets you’d need is a personal choice. I was writing my notes, working a bit and editing my photos during travelling. For all of that laptop was simply more convenient than a tablet. But if you just need to plan your trip as you go, tablet or even a smartphone might be sufficient.

The author reading Kindle on a Vietnamese sleeper bus

I love reading so Kindle was a good option to save me from carrying extra kilos in the form of books. I also used my Kindle instead of a guidebook as was much lighter to carry around when sightseeing than ‘South-East-Asia on a Shoestring’ in the paper form. If you’re not a big reader, Kindle won’t be necessary.

Photo equipment

If you’re not crazy about quality of your photos or have an iPhone, you could save a lot on the weight of your luggage by getting yourself a GoPro.
If you have a lot of money and would like to take high-quality photos, invest in a compact camera – very small and light but taking supreme quality photos.My budget allowed just a new DSLR camera so I had to make peace with carrying that bulky stuff around.

Author sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley and a waterfall, with her backpack and a camera back lying close to her

I also considered getting a GoPro but – apart from snorkelling and exploring wet caves- I didn’t regret the lack of an action camera. I managed to take videos with my regular camera while cycling or from the back of a motorcycle when Sayak was driving. However, if you’re very active and are likely to spend lots of time in water, an action camera would be very useful.

Electric essentials

Obviously a smartphone. So useful for checking the maps (offline with Maps.me app), booking the accommodation or onward journey tickets, using local taxi apps, etc. If it has a very good camera, you could rely on it completely for taking the photos.

Portable charger is one thing you’ll find extremely useful. Try to get a multi-plugging one enabling you to charge a few devices at the same time. Great for a long-haul travel, electricity shortages and accommodation with not enough sockets.

Adaptor plug wasn’t necessary for most of SEA where the sockets are quite versatile. Only UK style Malaysian sockets needed a conversion to continental Europe plugs.

DOCUMENTS AND MONEY

  • travel documents in a waterproof case
  • passport size photos (many)
  • money (dollars)
  • credit card that charges no fees for withdrawal
  • safe belt holder

It’s good to have your passport in a waterproof case and such waterproof case could be useful also for the mobile while kayaking,etc.

Passport size photos are a must for getting visas on arrival. Consider taking them in the first country you visit- it’ll be infinitely cheaper than in the West. It’s good to have a digital copy, too for e-visas.

Even if you’re planning to use ATMs rather than convert the money, dollars would be useful as emergency cash, to pay for visa on arrival in some countries and for Cambodia where it is in widespread use.

Safe belt for money and documents (the kind you keep UNDERNEATH your clothes) is an absolute must. Carry in the wallet only minimum amount of money. And don’t make my mistake: don’t carry any SIM cards, memory cards,etc in your wallet. It’d be a great loss if you get pick-pocketed.

Buy when you’re in Asia

  • cotton sarong: best lightweight beach towel, multi-purpose
  • fisherman pants: super useful when being active but staying modest, light, breathable and DURABLE. Try to find one with a pocket for making them even more practical
  • T-shirts: when you find out you need more than you took. They’re decent quality and VERY cheap ($1)

Clothes you can buy in South (East) Asia

Unlike specialized clothing, t-shirts, tops and dresses can be easily bought on the way. Be careful about the quality, though as buying a one-time use clothes isn’t economical and is very bad for the environment. Avoid like fire synthethic, loose-fitting, colourful print trousers ubiquitous in most of SEA. They are very badly sewn and aren’t suitable for any physical activity apart from very leisurely strolls. Both me and my husband tore our elephant-print Thai pants in crotch almost immediately after buying. Same happened to $1 shorts bought in Thailand.

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Our shopping from Chatuchak market in Thailand, including my favourite fisherman pants

BACKPACK and daypack for backpacking

A good backpack is a key to a pleasant travel. Don’t try to save money on this purchase! Your backpack has to have breathable back and waist belt. The more pockets it has, the better. It should be accessible both from the top and from the bottom or front so that you can find things easily. Get yourself a waterproof cover: it’s important both for the rain and to prevent it from getting extremely dirty when in transit.

You also need a daypack. It doesn’t need to be large or sophisticated: I was very happy with the cheapest 10 litre backpack bought in Decathlon. It was easy to fold when necessary, easy to clean and dry. Be sure you have a waterproof cover for a daypack as well! It’d be very important if you happen to travel in the wet season. Alternatively, you can use a normal plastic bag as a drybag inside your daypack.

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Your day pack doesn’t need to be fancy

Apart from the daypack, I often wore a small handbag with many zipped pockets. It was exactly big enough to fit a kindle, a wallet, a mobile and keys to a hotel room. A waist bag would work equally well.

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