Southeast Asia is abundant with travellers’ delights – from elephant trousers to bamboo flutes to t-shirts of local beer – and all at a reasonable cost. Basically, if you’re planning on a backpacking adventure around this gorgeous part of the world, you should consider packing light. Not only are your belongings pretty much replaceable (because you’ll be representing the wardrobe of Primark), but you’ll find yourself buying so much out there that you hadn’t initially considered.
Yes, I’m talking to all of you who will ultimately end up with a bamboo flute.
I had just finished my year’s placement and having somewhat saved up enough money, I arrived at the airport for my two month trip across four countries with a 45L rucksack which came to about 9kg, and a smaller backpack for hand luggage. I genuinely believed I had overpacked, bringing ten tops which I simply assumed was outrageous in order to find myself as a true backpacker. Yet, it turned out that my friends had really overpacked, lugging around backpacks close to 20kg.
However many clothes or toiletries you decide to bring abroad, it’s inevitable that you’re either going to destroy them due to grime or simply use up (yes you, diarrhoea tablets although thanks for having my back many, many times), or lose them. I lost an annoying quantity of nice items of clothing and even some bug spray and tanning oil, but hey – it truly is all replaceable. You’d be really f*cked if you were trekking somewhere remote like Christmas Island for a few months straight however. As long as you have money, your passport, and a visa if applicable, Southeast Asia is your oyster.
So – what do I recommend you to pack? I started off with this scrappy yet lifesaving list of necessities, which I have translated to legible writing below:
- passport: also bring a photocopy to keep on you during the day while your passport is either stored in a secure locker or behind the desk of your hostel
- any applicable visas: always check on the gov website well in advance before you travel. A lot of countries in SE Asia have the advantage of letting you be spontaneous by obtaining a visa on arrival, whereas places like Vietnam require you ordering one and paying the equivalent of a mortgage
- cards: I brought my debit card and a cash card, just in case I lost one or one didn’t work. I used Revolut for my free cash card which worked out really well and you control your funds through an app!
- currency: depending on where you’re going, sometimes it works out cheaper to convert your money before you travel. Unfortunately for me, the EU referendum was just before I converted my GBP to Thai Baht so I lost a good amount of money on the conversion. You can check currency rates on Money Supermarket. Also remember to only keep a small amount of money on you throughout the day in a zip purse, ideally in a bumbag
- photocopies of passport photos: you will need this for some visas on arrival, including Cambodia
- flight details: as we’re in the 21st century and technology is gracious, you can store all important booking details on your phone, miraculously. Unless you’re going full-on nomad and abandoning your phone. Otherwise, you may want to keep any important booking details written down in a diary
- a copy of your insurance policy: I bought mine from Insureandgo, as they do a special policy for backpackers, but you can compare rates here
- phone: how else will you keep social media updated, and be able to use all the important apps like TripAdvisor, Hostelworld, Booking.com, Expedia, and Skyscanner?
- railcard: if you’re getting a train to the airport, remember your railcard! While you won’t need it as soon as that jet takes off, you don’t want to start off the holiday with a fine by an overpriced transport company
TOILETRIES – bear in mind you can buy pretty much any drug in the chemists and for dirt cheap, but hey, I like to be prepared
- multivitamins: these are in case your diet is terrible and you live off 7/11 ham and cheese toasties and Meiji chocolate milk (best combo, I swear down), although Asian food is typically healthy enough
- loperamide: my mum is a pharmacist and advised these are the best tablets for diarrhoea, which is impossible to avoid I’m afraid. Especially if you’re idiotic like me and used tap water to clean teeth for the best part of two weeks
- hydrocortisone cream: your saviour for insect bites
- insect repellent: you can get repellent incorporated into sun-cream, as long as the DEET concentration is low. I had a high percentage DEET which meant I only sprayed the repellent on my clothes
- dioralyte: rehydration sachets. I got blackcurrant flavoured which were mildly disappointing but when you’ve been sweating all day these come in handy, to prevent you from dying and stuff
- hand sanitiser: buy both a travel-sized and a larger one, so when the smaller runs out you can decant the larger one into it and keep the smaller one in your bumbag
- baby wipes: do I even need to explain the many great uses that baby wipes have?
- first aid kit: it’s also worth getting extra plasters, wound dressing or spray on plaster too if you’re particularly accident-prone
- anti-malaria tablets: these basically deserve their own post. But, to summarise, I was recommended to get tablets just in case. Obviously I wasn’t going to dip into my travel savings by going to Boots or another high street pharmacy so I resorted to MedExpress (totally legitimate). I got the cheapest, Doxycycline, however I developed side effects a month into taking them, and my friend also got really vivid nightmares, so we both stopped taking them while in Vietnam. Investing in anti-malaria tablets is a personal choice as it’s very rare to contract the illness. Do your research first for all vaccinations and tablets here though
- shower gel, shampoo, conditioner: honestly, buy it while you’re there, share with your friends, or pick some up from the free section of a hostel bathroom (unless you’re like me and have really irritable, dyed blonde hair that can’t make its mind up whether it’s dry or greasy so you need special, expensive hair products). However what I did rely on for part of my trip were Lush shampoo and conditioner bars which are too damn underrated
- face care: although I didn’t wear much makeup, I relied on face-wipes for the majority of my trip which was rancid. I brought decent moisturiser with 15SPF too. You could tell when I forgot to wear it as my face just became beetroot
- laundry detergent: you can buy hand-washing detergent which slip comfortably in your rucksack. Mine was by Dylon and I brought 3 tubes
- razors: I brought my Gillette Venus and Olay razor with just about four spare blades which was more than enough for two months. Expensive but no razor burn
- sun-cream and after-sun/aloe vera: I noticed that tanning oil that guaranteed a tan was much more expensive in Bali compared to just going on Amazon, for example. It’s worth bringing a bottle of each to start with and buy the rest as you go along
- toothbrush and toothpaste: buy them wherever, Thai Colgate is pretty good
- deodorant: I bought a £5 one (ikr) which I then lost, so resorted to buying a Thai one which turns out, was for whitening skin – the joys
- nail clippers, tweezers, some earbuds: those things we all forget about
- other tablets: obviously bring any prescription medicine. I brought my own contraceptive tablets with me, but I managed to buy an asthma inhaler and heart tablets way too easily over the counter in a Vietnamese chemist
- other stuff: hair oil, dry shampoo, sanitary towels/tampons etc is all a personal choice, as is bringing makeup
- hairbrush/comb: obvs
- condoms: I didn’t engage in any intercourse but so many people sh*g in SE Asia. Even if there’s a 1% chance you’ll find your soulmate and make love under the stars, or are basically looking for some action, then you’d be silly not to bring protection
- travel adaptors: weirdly enough most places take the US shaped adaptor whereas Bali takes the European adaptor
- phone charger: of course, remember to bring your phone
- camera and charger: I also bought a little adaptor that allows me to plug my SD card in and connect it to my iPhone to upload snazzy pics on the go without having to go through a laptop
- reading book: my friends and I all bought one at the airport, so we could all swap while sunbathing. Yet I read The Girl on the Train in a day so the initiative wasn’t consistent between us all
- notebook and pen: the only reason that I can recall the hundreds of stories that were created over the course of two months is because I kept a journal. Watch out for upcoming blog posts based on my travel experiences too, all thanks to that trusty journal
- sunglasses and hat
- mosquito net: most hostels have air conditioner which seems to deter the mozzies. But if you’re staying in a jungle hut you may want to bring along a net
- string: for hanging clothes out to dry, though they’ll never properly dry in the humidity 😦
- tops: even if you bring a god quantity of tops, you’re bound to chuck some away and buy new ones ie rip-off Adidas t-shirts from night markets are a must
- bottoms: I brought two pairs of shorts, and they got wrecked. It’s a rite of passage to buy elephant trousers anyway. I also brought a few maxi skirts as well as some leggings for when the night buses got overly air-conned
- swimwear: two bikinis seemed enough for me
- underwear: I brought 10 pairs but because I was hand-washing my clothes, most just deteriorated. I ended up buying some in Thailand. For any clothes you buy in Asia though, be wary that the sizing is tinier compared to the UK. Aim for two sizes larger than what you are eg Large instead of Small
- bras: a sports bra, regular bra, and strapless bra are basically all you need. No time for push-up bras on a Thai beach
- socks: you’re bound to go somewhere remotely wet as SE Asia is notorious for its torrential rain, so invest in some thick socks
- footwear: I brought waterproof yet lightweight and breathable walking shoes, some Birkenstock-esque sandals, and flip-flops
- waterproof: get one you can fold up, Primark usually sells these
- hoodie: it will get cold when the air con is blasting
- other: a few dresses, sarongs, kimonos, why not?
And that’s my list! There seems a lot but for nearly everything I’ve mentioned, you can buy toiletries and clothes while you’re abroad. If you think I’ve forgotten any vital or have any tips, leave a comment below!