Heading to South East Asia and not sure what to pack? This article may help you narrow down those items which must make it into your bag!
Packing can be a pain in the butt. But you can take the hassle out of packing by making sure you have a small set of ‘go-to’ packing essential items that are all ready to go. If you are heading to South East Asia then it is useful to have a few ‘staples’ in your bag to make life a bit easier. In the last five years, we have visited Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Throughout our trips, we have slowly whittled down the essentials we pack each and every time. These are our packing essentials.
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It is important to dress for local weather and customs – and regardless of what time of year you head to this part of the world it will be warm and humid, and then sometimes it will be pouring with rain. So, pack light clothing. These are our packing essentials when we head to SE Asia. Even if you aren’t backpacking in SE Asia, I think there are some staples to go in your bag. The things that no matter where we are travelling, or for how long, these items will be in our bags – especially when heading to SE Asia.
After visiting South East Asia several times we now know some of the key things it is important to pack. When you try and pack light everything you take has to be used and functional. When we first went to South East Asia we visited Vietnam and Thailand. And we over packed – there was lots of ‘just in case’. Our advice, if you are justifying packing something ‘just in case’ you probably don’t need it. We have whittled down our essentials each trip and this list is where we are currently at. To be honest most of these things are in our bag – wherever we travel. As we embark on planning for long-term travel, this list is our go-to guide. We haven’t included technology requirements in this list – that is a whole other story!
This isn’t a packing list that identifies each piece of clothing we take. It covers the essentials – those things that we can’t travel without. Those things that will make life just that little bit easier when you are travelling in SE Asia. For example, we know we can pick up paracetamol or an umbrella in most places we travel, so we don’t pack it.
How Much Should You Take?
You will find this information in this article
The general rule of thumb is that you should pack what you can carry or lift. At some stage on your journey, you will need to pick up, carry or lift your bag. While this may not be very often, if you can’t physically lift your bag, then you are already at a disadvantage. And speaking from experience, it is no fun dragging giant suitcases around – especially if the pathways are uneven, as they are through most of Asia, or even worse if you have to go up steps.
We have also realised that we need the same amount of clothing and toiletries for a week as we do for six weeks. If you are on the road for longer, especially in Asia, you can get your clothes laundered very inexpensively. Plus handwashing underwear or the odd t-shirt as you go saves having to pack more than a few days worth.
Throughout most of South East Asia, there are two seasons – wet and dry. Regardless of the season, it is also hot. Unless you are in the north of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand or even Hong Kong. Because it is generally hot, we also work on the basis of at least one change or two changes of clothes a day.
How much you take is entirely up to you, but do keep in mind the weather and how much luggage you want to lug around. On our last five-week trip, we had one light backpack, one small suitcase, a handbag and a daypack. On other trips, we take a medium suitcase between us rather than two bags. Both the light backpack and the suitcase could fit into an overhead compartment if necessary.
What to pack
We use these bags when travelling. We find them to be hardwearing and they suit our purposes.
Light Backpack – we searched for ages to find a small 40l backpack that opened from the side. We have travelled with larger backpacks in the past, which I did not enjoy at all. I hated having to burrow around to find something – or unpack everything to find that one elusive item. This PacSafe backpack has been a delight. We both have one and find them really great. They have all the standard ‘anti theft‘ features you can expect from a PacSafe bag, they open from the side and they have a padded compartment for your laptop, tablet or e-reader. We have found these bags to be really practical, hard wearing and well worth the investment. Check here for the latest information
Small Suitcase – this hard sided suitcase is perfect for travelling. We find that by using packing cells (see below) we can get a lot into one of these. This 25″ expandable case is the right size for one or five weeks – or even longer. As it is expandable, you can also ensure there is plenty of room for any shopping you may have done. There is also a larger and smaller case in this range if you wanted a family set. Check here for the latest information
Small Handbag – I took this small convertible handbag as carry on, and it was also great for everyday use when travelling. It has ‘anti theft’ features which is great for peace of mind, and it can be increased in size if required (which for me was all the time). It fit all the necessities for flying – passports, wallet, e-reader, phone, tablet. A durable bag that looks good too. Check for the latest information and prices
Daypack – we always carry a daypack with us. It is good to have when travelling around Asia as it keeps your hands free. Of course, always be aware when carrying a daypack, but we have not yet struck any issues. We prefer to have a waterproof daypack with several compartments, and love using this one. Check here for the latest information and prices
No matter where we are travelling, there is a core set of travel essentials we always pack. These are our reliable ‘go to’ items that are always in our bags.
Packing Cells – there appear to be several camps about packing cells. For the last eighteen months we have used several sets of packing cubes, and to be frank, they have made a real impact on our packing, how we organise our stuff and so much more. The benefits of having packing cells are numerous, in addition to the obvious task of packing clothes. We find they are also great for separating dirty from clean clothes and organising clothes seasonally (great if you are travelling across seasons). If one of you also has a tendency to look like their pack has exploded once they enter the room, packing cells can (and do) limit the chaos. An added bonus of packing cells when travelling in South East Asia is that if they are done up it is difficult for creepy crawlies to get in. I would take them based on solely that factor! We like to get a different coloured set each which makes it easier to keep track of who has what. Check here for the latest prices
Toiletry Bag– when we travel we share a toiletry bag, so we need to have a hard wearing, durable bag that isn’t going to take up half the space in our bag. We look for a waterproof bag, with separate compartments (including ones with zips) and preferably a hook – so you have hands free access to all you need! We have managed to make our way through several different types to find one that suits our purpose. Key tip – big is not necessarily better! Check here for the latest information.
Travel Adapter – it may seem strange that this is so far up the list, but we couldn’t travel without it. We travel with at least a tablet, e-reader , spare battery and phone each. All of which need charging. On longer trips we also have laptops, so one USB charger that charges most things is a must for us. This adapter is great as it also has a six-hole universal input socket so we can charge a laptop on it too if necessary. Check here for the latest information
Stainless Steel Straws – so much plastic is used in everyday life in South East Asia – especially if you are travelling and eating out a lot. A small way to decrease your own plastic use is to have a set of Stainless Steel Straws. If you are having a couple of smoothies, cocktails or iced drinks a day the amount of straws you use soon adds up. Stainless steel straws are great – they will lessen how much plastic you use and hardly take up any room in your bag. Check here to find out latest prices for Stainless Steel Straws
Travel bottles – if you are going to take your favourite shampoo, body lotion or conditioner with you it is best to decant from full sized bottles into these mini travel bottles. They are the right size for carry on, leak proof and useful for transporting your precious lotions and potions! Check out the latest prices here
We try to pack as light as possible – which is relatively easy when going to countries with a consistent climate. For shorter journeys, you can probably get away with handwashing the odd item as you go. For those longer journeys, there is good access to reasonably priced laundry services throughout South East Asia. Ladies, if you are intending to visit loads of temples then make sure you have at least one set of clothing that is modest and covers shoulders, cleavage and legs. For a two week vacation, these are the items ladies should think about including in your are if you are heading to Asia.
3 x Tshirts – you may find you will move through your t-shirts quickly due to the hot weather
1 x loose cotton shirt – can be dressed up for going out, potential to be used for a visit to the temple. Can be paired with the shorts, skirt or even over the dress if necessary.
1 x shorts or leggings – good for travelling, beachwear or exercise
1 x skirt – a good versatile option to mix and match
2 x dresses – packing two dresses is a practical option. They are great for day to day use, a throw over for your swimsuit, and potentially for visiting temples.
Swimsuit – a must if you are visiting the beach or if your hotel has a pool. One of the best ways of cooling down after a day of exploring is a dip in the pool.
Sarong or Wrap – this is an absolute essential for our South East Asian packing. They are so versatile and can be used as a wrap, towel, cover for cold air conditioning – and the list goes on. Check latest prices here
We generally take the approach that we can buy most things at the destination we travel to. For example, they do sell shampoo and conditioner in Asia, generally at a fraction of the price you would pay at home – so we aren’t going to lug large bottles of shampoo. You may have a favourite lotion or shampoo that you must take though. See the travel bottles we refer to above so you don’t have to take large bottles. We do make an exception for the things on this list though, you may have other things you think are critical to take.
Sunscreen – sunscreen is a must have if you are spending any time in the sun. While the sun in South East Asia isn’t as harsh as that in New Zealand or Australia, it is sensible to always wear sunscreen when travelling. Find sunscreen here
Insect Repellent – if you have the tendency to get bitten by anything all the time then an insect repellent is absolutely essential. As I have to wear it all day every day I tend to go for an insect repellent with natural ingredients and find them to be very good. Find your best insect repellent here
Lavender Oil – we always pack lavender oil. It is perfect for applying to bites (takes the sting away), and helpful if you have trouble sleeping. Small and easily portable.
Technology has become a core part of our travel kit, and we have to work hard to make sure we aren’t overloading on technology. Part of the charm of travel is disconnecting after all. Our phones are integral to our travel experience – they are our camera, maps, music, audiobooks, movies, currency converter, and the main way of keeping in touch with friends and family. The other essentials we travel with are
e reader– we both have e-readers and love them. I particularly like an e-reader as I don’t feel worried about taking it to the beach or to read by the side of the pool – whereas I am nervous about dropping my phone in the water. We are both voracious readers so e-readers are a good alternative to lugging books around. Although it is a bit too easy to buy books! Check out which e-reader suits you best here
Mobile Hotspot – having a mobile hotspot has been a fantastic thing for us. Recently in Vietnam, we bought a sim for $15NZD for a month of unlimited data. We prefer to use a mobile hotspot for security and reliability reasons. They are well worth the investment and make life much easier. Check here for the latest prices
Head torch– this may seem like a weird addition, but we have found a head torch to be really helpful throughout our travels in South East Asia. Whether it be walking unpaved streets in Laos or Cambodia, heading to the bathroom in the middle of the night on Cambodian islands, or just getting safely back to your hotel room without tripping over (especially if you are accident prone like me) – a head torch can come in handy. True, you may look like a village idiot when you are wearing it, but at least you won’t be tripping over yourself or potholes! Check out head torches here
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At the end of the day what you pack is entirely up to you. Hopefully this article has given you an idea about the types of things that will make your South East Asian trip easier.
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