What to bring to Southeast Asia? Back when I was in grad school, I often felt stuck and unhappy, like my life was stagnant, so I would dream about traveling the world by perusing packing lists and optimizing my future gear for adventure. The truth is, though, you don’t need all that much to travel to Southeast Asia, and you don’t need the best version of everything: most of what you already have will work fine! I find great enjoyment in ‘optimizing’ my gear, however, so I’ll include products that have become my ride or dies. Without further ado, here’s my Southeast Asia packing list: my tried and true gear that gets me through rain or shine in Southeast Asia.
A travel backpack is great, although a backpacking backpack works as well. (article coming soon on what to look for in a travel backpack!) Sometimes you have to walk a mile to find your hostel, over wet, muddy, uneven ground, and you want to comfortably be able to carry all of your stuff. I have the Osprey Porter 46 and I couldn’t be happier with it!
☐ Backpack Rain Cover
When you carry your backpack in the rain, it is protected under your poncho, but sometimes backpacks are tied to the roof of a bus or boat, and then the rain cover comes in very handy. Any you can find will do, but make sure it’s big enough for your pack!
You want a bag or a purse that you can carry during the day while exploring. It should be comfortable, and big enough to fit your wallet, phone, water, sunscreen, and poncho. I got this Pacsafe crossbody bag on sale and I mostly really like it. My only complaint is that when full of gear and water, it gets a little heavy on only one shoulder. A small day backpack would solve this issue, although I prefer to have my stuff in front of me and visible for security. The REI Flash Packs are an excellent choice of day backpack, they pack down really small, are simple, and last forever!
☐ Packing Cubes
Packing cubes are magical and will transform your life. I used to carry my clothes either in bags or just shoved into my backpack, and I always had to just take everything out so I could find anything. It was a mess, and I wasted a lot of time and space. Rolling your clothes into packing cubes is the most space efficient way of packing, whenever I get lazy and just try to shove things in again, all of a sudden my stuff doesn’t fit! Get the more rigid kind, like this Eagle Creek Pack-it Full Cube Set!
☐ Toiletry Bag
I’m a huge fan of my hanging toiletry bag! There isn’t always a lot of counter space in bathrooms, but there’s always a hook or bar you can hang your toiletry bag on. I have the L.L.Bean Personal Organizer Toiletry Bag and I love it to pieces! (Um, figuratively; it’s still in one piece). I find the medium perfect size for me, but I like to have a lot of toiletries, some hair stuff, a little makeup… if you are a true minimalist, I admire you, and recommend you go with the small, or maybe even an ultra light one like this one. I prefer my gear to have a bit of rigidity to it, however, which adds a little bit of weight and space, but the stiffness helps with the packing and keeping things organized.
THIS IS SO IMPORTANT!!! To prevent skin cancer and premature aging, make sure to pack it and wear it every day!! If you forget it or run out, you will be in for quite a challenge to find sunscreen in Southeast Asia without ‘whitening.’
Protect your teeth, you only have one set left! (talking to myself here, this is my weakness)
I prefer bar soap that I carry in a plastic soap case, nothing fancy!
I’m very happy with my J.R. Liggett shampoo bars. They are compact, carry-on friendly, and actually have a great lather for a sulfate-free formula! Also, they last forever, one bar lasted me a bit over 2 months, and then I discovered my boyfriend had been using it too!! I carry mine in their travel container that potentially has been discontinued (whyyy??), because it’s very expensive now. There’s a travel pouch that has good reviews, but I haven’t personally tested it.
I have this one, it’s good! Obviously only if you prefer to shave.
Whatever gets it done.
☐ Face Soap
I’m pretty into skincare, and didn’t want to give up my routine on the road. I pumped some of my Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser into a small travel container (something like this, but I got a random one last minute at Walgreens), and it lasted me 2 months!
☐ Face Lotion
☐ Contacts/Contact Solution
On an as-needed basis. (very much needed over here)
There’s a lot of flexibility here. In general, you want lightweight, breathable clothing, preferably a bit loose to help with the heat. Nothing too revealing, as Southeast Asia is on the whole pretty conservative with regards to clothing, and you want to respect that.
I like having about a week to a week and a half worth of clothes, so that I can stretch it out a bit and only have to do laundry every 2 weeks. But that’s because I’m lazy, true minimalists can get away with way less. (Can you tell I low key want to be a minimalist, but I love stuff??)
(Article coming up on the best clothing for travel, with more specific recommendations!)
☐ 7 Tops
Tank tops and short sleeve shirts, whatever you prefer! (A couple of short sleeve shirts are necessary for temples, however, where you need to cover your shoulders and knees)
☐ 2 Bottoms
At least one pair of pants that you can wear to temples, as well as another pair of pants or shorts. You want to leave room in your pack to buy more cute flowy pants and skirts that are sold at every Southeast Asian market! I now have way more than 2 bottoms 😉
☐ 1 Dress
This is optional but it’s nice to have to switch things up. You could also get one at a market during your trip.
☐ Workout Clothes
I classify this separately to regular clothes for simplicity in counting, because it depends on how much you want to work out on your trip. I have 3 pairs of yoga pants and 3 pairs of bike shorts, which I also wear under dresses and skirts to avoid the dreaded chub rub! I thought this might be overkill, but most laundry days I end up washing all or most of them!
☐ 10 Pairs of Underwear, 5 Bras, 3 Pairs of Socks
I like having lots because I don’t want to reuse these much before laundry day.
☐ Sleeping Clothes
A light tank top and shorts to sleep in, especially if staying in hostels with other people!
If you don’t have a hat you love, definitely pick one up at a local market in Southeast Asia for under $10!
☐ Rain Poncho
Especially during the rainy season!! You and your stuff will get soaked otherwise. I carry mine around with me in my day bag and usually use it daily! The Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite Poncho is awesome and cheap!
I brought 2 and don’t regret it, but one will do just fine!
Sandals that are comfortable and you can walk all day in. I love Birkenstocks for travel, I took mine to Europe, Central, and South America. For Southeast Asia, considering the rainy season, I wanted something a bit better with water than leather. In Thailand, I bought Kito mens sandal (I’m a women’s 10, so I had to shop in the mens section in Southeast Asia!), and they are fantastic. Unfortunately, I could only find them online here, and you have to buy 600 pairs. But I still want to recommend them, just stop by a Thai shopping mall and get them for like $12! Future plans include trying out the Birkenstock Eva rubber shoes, and I will update with my impressions!
☐ Flip Flops
Shower Shoes. Sometimes communal showers are gross.
Comfortable sneakers for hiking and working out. Not your super cute sparkling white ones, mine got muddy, wet, and stanky.
☐ Small First Aid Kit
Be prepared for emergencies, food poisoning, blisters… (Article on what you should have in your travel first aid kit coming up!) I have the Adventure Medical kit that I’ve supplemented with extra bandaids, anti-poopy pills, etc, and I definitely recommend having one.
So, so useful! I use my phone for everything from finding a place to stay, best things to do, money conversions, entertainment, etc. Check out my article on the Best Travel Apps!
Really great to watch pre-downloaded YouTube videos on long bus rides. If you get motion-sickness, you can listen to music or an audio book!
My favorite thing in the world. Get the Kindle Paperwhite, the battery lasts for weeks, and the built-in light is really useful to read before bed, especially if you’re in a hostel and people are sleeping.
☐ External Battery
Really useful to have, and doesn’t take up that much space. I have this one and love it.
Good to have, I’ve used it lots during power outages and outdoor activities. Any will do, I have this one.
For all your electronics, I only have one because all mine are compatible!
I legit don’t understand how people travel without a guidebook. I use it religiously, first to get a rough idea of places I want to go, and then I focus on the area I’m in. It’s full of things to do, best massage places, tour operators, etc, as well as information on the buses, border crossings, scams to avoid, social customs and taboos… Of course you can get all of this information on the internet, but having it all in one place and accessible offline is a godsend. There are lots of good options depending on your preferences, but I’m obsessed with Lonely Planet. Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is an incredible guide to budget, long-term travel.
☐ Water Bottle
Stay hydrated! I mostly buy bottled water since tap water in Southeast Asia is unsafe to drink, but occasionally a guesthouse or restaurant will have a fill up station.
☐ Travel Towel
I have the Packtowl Original Towel in XL
☐ Laundry Bag
Really great for organization and getting someone to do your laundry if you’re lazy like me (usually costs about a dollar per kg in Southeast Asia so it’s pretty affordable). I have this set and use the Large as my laundry bag and the medium for packing my underwear and bras.
If you can’t see good
Your phone will work great in most situations, so unless you’re into photography or curious to try, a camera is optional!
Definitely optional. Your phone will do the job in most cases. I travel with my MacBook Air and I love it for editing photos and blogging, but you really don’t need it otherwise.
Most places have standard US two flat spades type plugs, so phone and kindle chargers can plug directly in. I use an adapter for my computer charger, because the plug has the two flat spades plus a third prong underneath. This is a really good, reliable adapter.
I like jotting things down on pen and paper, but that totally depends on the person. I bought a fun notebook as a souvenir in a Laos night market, so I only brought pens from home.
I love my watch for an easy alarm clock and timer that doesn’t need to be charged every night, but most people just use their phones. I guess I’m old school like that.
That’s about it! I want to stress that you don’t need the newest and best version of anything, if you’re on a budget definitely save your money for actually traveling. Most of the things you already have in your home will work! Good luck with your trip and let me know if my Southeast Asia packing list was helpful!! Also check out my Southeast Asia itinerary here!