A top opening backpack is only good for light packers or those who don't mind unpacking all of their belongings every time they want something out of it. Side opening backpacks are much more practical, especially the ones that have a detachable day bag and a bottom compartment. Pick a sturdy backpack with good fastenings and zips as it may have to last you a while! Most good quality backpacks can be found far cheaper on amazon than on the high street and it's worth shopping around to find one ideal for you. Size is down to personal preference once you know what to pack for your specific trip. We always get a big backpack, somewhere around the 65L mark, but keep packed items to a minimum so there is room to pick up things on the road. Be aware that you will have to carry this everywhere, so it shouldn't be more than an absolute maximum of 15kg starting out.
Berghaus make a 'Jalan' backpack that has zip away straps and wheels on the bottom, perfect for when your backpack gets too heavy to comfortably carry, or you just want to take it short distances (between hostels and buses for example.)
What to pack for Southeast Asia
Most things you would want to bring with you are available for a similar or cheaper price in Asia so don't worry about forgetting (most) things. This is a top ten list of really useful items that you should bring with you from home. This is because they aren't available in Asia, are more expensive here, or are important to have from the beginning of your trip.
1. A Travel Safe
This is probably the most valuable thing we have ever purchased and our number one suggestion of what to pack for Southeast Asia. It is basically a secure lightweight cage that fits inside a bag, and has a cable to attach (and padlock) to something in your hotel room. Some hostels and guesthouses have lockers and safes but 70% of the places we have ever stayed didn't have any secure places for valuables. Particularly with clauses in insurance policies requiring proof of purchases, electrical items needing to be under a year old, and proof of breaking/entering required to claim, our travel safe has been a top investment! This one has room for a laptop, several SLR cameras + equipment and some smaller electrical items, passports and money pouches. It also comes with a secure padlock. It can also be locked to you/your surroundings while on transportation (particularly night buses and trains!) for extra peace of mind.
Also high on many packing lists is several different sizes of locks. Small ones are useful to padlock daybags shut or to padlock your backpack shut for plane journeys. Larger, sturdy ones can padlock your bags TO things or padlock the door of your beach hut. All very useful! We also have an alarmed bike lock for particularly dubious locations.
3. Sleeping Bag Liner
This is a thin sheet that normally lines a sleeping bag and is very handy for any situations where you have to sleep somewhere not all that clean (night buses, boats, unsavoury hostel choices etc.) This obviously depends on your tolerance for dirt, if these things don't bother you then move onto number 4 of what to pack! Cotton liners are preferable to silk ones as they don't get as sticky in the heat, and can be found in all good camping stores. Here is a good universal option:
4. A Microfibre Towel
This is a super thin, lightweight and fast drying towel that takes up hardly any space or weight in your backpack. Lots of hostels provide towels now but there will be occasions when you need one, and they are obviously useful for the beach and for treks. They also double as a blanket on overly air-conditioned buses! Ours are from Bodhi, come in a range of colours and still look and feel exactly as they did when we bought them over a year ago.
Related article: What visas do I need for Southeast Asia?
5. A Medi-Kit
Preferably containing Ibuprofen, Immodium, re-hydrating sachets, waterproof plasters, Gaviscon, Germolene or antiseptic and travel sickness/sleeping tablets (optional). Our doctor suggested bringing clean, hypodermic needles in case of emergency medical treatment but everywhere we have been in South East Asia (and we have visited many hospitals in our time here!) has had access to new needles and clean medical equipment.
Despite the prevalence of pharmacies in Asia, you never know when you'll need these things, and its good to keep a small supply with you. You don't necessarily need to pack these medications, as they can also be bought once you arrive. Also useful to buy once out here is charcoal tablets which are great for when you (inevitably) get food-related illnesses.
You may want to bring Malaria medication with you depending on the areas you are visiting as Malarone is unavailable in most of SE Asia. Doxycycline is readily available and extremely cheap but can have pretty gnarly side effects. Dengue Fever is prevalent in all the areas that Malaria is a risk, so preventing yourself from being bitten is paramount and the best way to avoid getting seriously ill.
Mosquito repellent is available widely but ensuring you pack some in your case is recommended as people tend to be particularly tasty to mosquitoes when they first arrive. Citronella and lavender sprays are also available, which are inexpensive and are less toxic than the strong DEET chemicals (which can strip off nail varnish!) but should be used more frequently and potentially as a supplement to DEET use. They are also good to use on bedding and safe to use while you are sleeping.
A bite ‘clicker’ to take the itch out of the bite with a small electrical current is also a very handy medi-kit addition, and we have not found an equivalent to buy anywhere in Asia.
6. Money Pouch/Documents
This is a small bag that can be worn under clothes and contain bank cards, cash, and passports. These are especially useful on overnight transport where thieves can pickpocket bags as you are sleeping. You should also pack at least 6 passport photos (for an extensive trip around the region) and a photocopy of your passport photo page (this speeds up a replacement if it gets lost or stolen and can be used for identification at hotels if you are without your passport for visa purposes.)
7. Cash Cards
It is advisable to have more than one source of cash while travelling. Cards can be eaten by ATMs, lost or stolen, and having money sent to you can be expensive. We recommend using a cash card such as Travelex’s Cash Passport Globe (or similar) which you load up in your own currency and then withdraw in local currencies with a very good rate/cost ratio. These cards only have the amount you load them up with on them, so you can keep most of your money in a separate bank account, giving you extra protection from theft or identity fraud.
Related article: How to get around Southeast Asia: The ultimate transport guide
Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are good sources of basic information about a country. We advise choosing whichever book is most recently published as will contain the most up to date information (many hotels, restaurants, prices and even rules and regulations can change quickly in Asia.) Guidebooks should not be your entire source of information if you can avoid it though, as they only offer their specific views and recommends – go out there and make your own adventures!
9. Electrical Items
Laptops, Kindles, iPods, speakers and phones all come in very useful while travelling, particularly for longer trips but obviously everything expensive that you bring comes with a risk. Weigh up if you can afford to lose it and make sure that your insurance will cover it (without high excesses) or bring your own security like our travel safe. Travelling several years ago was completely manageable without phones and computers due to the widespread internet cafes, but unfortunately most of these have closed down due to the prevalence of smartphones.
You can get most toiletries in Southeast Asia for a similar price or cheaper than at home. These are the things you should bring with you: Sun cream. It’s expensive in Asia and has often been sat in the heat (which makes it less effective) and doesn’t have the same UVB/UVA ratings as the UK so you aren't always sure what you're buying. The best sun creams we have found are the Boots’ Soltan range which all have a 5* UVA rating (the deeply damaging rays).
Multi vitamins, and Nivea Crème (the best thing for sunburns) are also always packed in our backpacks. For girls: Batiste and face cream are hard to find in Asia as most moisturisers contain skin whitening chemicals! There also isn’t a great deal of brand makeup at reasonable prices (outside of Bangkok/Chiang Mai) so bring whatever you will need for the duration of your trip.
What NOT to pack:
Most toiletries are cheaply available in Southeast Asia (eg shampoo, toothpaste, hair products) so bring what you need for the first week and then replace.
Too many clothes. There are so many vests, T shirts, dresses, shorts and bikinis to buy, you will regret over-packing. Bring enough for a few days to a week. Laundry services are extremely cheap and readily available in guesthouses and on most streets in SE Asia. Most places offer around £1 or less per kilogram of laundry washed, dried and brought to your room.
Sunglasses and Flip Flops. There are so many great options to buy in Asia, there is no need to bring your own. On my first trip I ended up with nine pairs of sunglasses that I had to carefully pack each time we moved around so as not to break them!
Any valuable or sentimental jewellery. Anything other than solid Silver/Gold will tarnish and get ruined from all the sweat, suncream and bug spray. Anything valuable could be stolen - not worth risking.
Note: we make a very small amount if you buy via the above links but they are mostly there to provide examples and prices for our readers. We want you to get the best deals so please shop around and find the best option for you.
Related article: The best routes and itineraries for Southeast Asia
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