How early is too early to pack?
For many of my trips I’ve been guilty with the last-minute packing. But not with the SE Asia solo backpacking trip! This is a journey you want to be prepared. As my friends are jokingly asking if I am packing for the war or traveling, I feel as I am ready for either! Lol
Since this is my second trip to the region, now I know what to expect. This is the list of essentials you will need. Even though most of the items you might be able to purchase at the arrival, I strongly recommend coming prepared. Not only the quality but the price might not be what you are expecting. For example, sunscreen in Thailand and Malaysia were outrageously expensive and is very questionable quality.
Also, my packing list is created on basic needs and should fit into one carry-on sized backpack. I don’t believe in paying for a checked in luggage nor I wish to carry any extra weight. Depends on the length of your travel you want to adjust the quantities. I am packing for the 4 weeks trip.
For those who already have been in SE Asia, know that many places you will have to walk in the water to get on your boat and carry your belongings to/from many uncomfortable locations (hello boats in Thailand and Indonesia!). And of course, the famous bike rides when you are hanging on to the driver as a monkey to the tree during the storm.
Backpack and packing gear
Before you start throwing stuff into your backpack, let’s start from the basics. The luggage itself. Remember, backpack is your best friend, your main gear and your survival kit. I won’t exaggerate by saying that you can ruin your trip or make it great just by choosing the right backpack. My best friend for the past few years was Osprey 55 liters. Sturdy, comfortable, simple but cost $200. In my opinion it is worth is as it also comes with the detachable daypack.
I found it very helpful to have packing cubes for any trip over 1 week long. Especially if you are changing locations rapidly, you would love to have all your belongings organized and easily accessible.
I also suggest looking into toiletries bag and small items bags to have everything in designated place. If you are less of OCD traveler, skip this part! 🙂
Mosquito net and repellent
Call me crazy but I do not wish to have even one more sleepless night due to my biggest fear: roaches! In Asia that was my number one fear factor. I am also a roach freak so if you could care less about these nasty creatures skip this item. However, this is the first thing I’m packing. Bug net for careless sleep nights. I got the one with easy set up from Amazon for $19.
Mosquito spray. I wouldn’t rely on local brands even though I’ve heard that some locally made repellents are made for the area specific bugs. Very debatable statement on my opinion. For my second trip I also ordered a mosquito bracelet just because sometimes wearing sunscreen and repellent feels like too much on your skin.
I’m bringing a solid shampoo bar because it will for sure last me 3-4 weeks, wont leak or melt (yes, temperatures in SE Asia can be very hot!) and it is significantly lighter than a liquid shampoo. Also simple things like shampoo, conditioner, deodorant could be hard to find if you are away from civilization. I would skip on bringing the hair mask as I found it very convenient using coconut oil instead of hair mask, lotion and even healing ointment.
Supliments and First Aid Kit
I din’t take too much time preparing the first aid kit. Instead I picked the one with the best reviews and compact size from Amazon. Besides everything what was included(standard medicine and bandaids) I am bringing Activated charcoal pills. Many places in SE Asia have poor quality water and there is no such thing a food quality control. A simple medicine as a charcoal helped me in many situations. No side effects, cheap and light.
What I did research extensively is the the travel pill organizers. I even ordered (and later returned) 3 different ones. I realized that the old fashioned zip lock bags are still the best way if you are concerned about the compact size. I am also not on any life support medicine and all supplements are only for energy boost and general well being. I packed: Vitamin C, Probiotics, Vitamin B12 and the sleeping pills for the long haul flights.
After getting horrible water poisoning I now aware of how serious it could be. This time I’m bringing the filter straw to make sure I am protected from the poor water quality. Out of many I picked Sawyer Products Mini Water Filtration System. It is light weight, compact and seems to be a good quality product.
Hygiene feminine products.
Funny but not so funny is when you are in a disaster need of it and you are somewhere on the night bus in the middle of nowhere. Like a night bus from Thailand to Malaysia and tampons there do not exist!! Add the refreshing wipes to this list.
Laundry detergent sheets. Not liquid but sheets. Of course, you can find some places who will do laundry for you, but it is not always an option. Also, since they don’t have a dryer it takes 2 days to get your clothes done. If you are like me travel with the minimum stuff it is much more convenient do it yourself.
I tend to pack minimum clothes (yes! Girls like me do exist!). What I mean by minimum is:
2 pair of cotton or linen shorts
5-6 cotton short sleeve T-shirts
3 tank tops
2-3 pairs of asian style pants (or buy at arrival)
10 pairs of underwear + 2 sport bras
2 swimming suits
yoga pants or anything relatively warm and comfy for the long flights and freezing cold buses
1 long sleeve jacket or hoodie
It might seem as a random list of clothes to you but… Despite the fact that SE Asian countries are tiny, the range is weather is huge! Especially in the different seasons. On my previous trip I was freezing in Northern Vietnam, soaking in endless rain in Central Vietnam and melting under the hot Cambodian sun. And all these weather differences in 3 weeks only! Especially in you are heading there in Mansoon season which may vary from country to country.
As for the shoes I go with the magic number 3.
Teva style hiking sandals
No matter what type of activity you are planning on doing, I guarantee you will use all 3 of them. Flip flops is a no brainier in hot Asian weather. I also use it in the shower…. Yes, some guest houses don’t look squeaky clean to me. Running shoes, you will be glad you have for the long flights and buses. Teva (or any brand really) open hiking shoes are a must for the dusty and bumpy Asian road even though you are not planning any hikes at all.
Travel adapter. I am a traveler so buying a country specific plugs are not convenient. I opted out for Flight 001 4-In-1 Travel Adapter for its multi-functionality, durability and simply creative look. The choices are endless, just bring what fits your needs. Another great tech accessory to have is a power bank. If you are like me transforming your phone into navigator, camera, flash light and the list goes on, you should consider a light weight compact power supply.
Head light. After visiting Cambodia’s Angkor wat when you must be at the location by 4-4:30 am I realized some sort of portable light is a must. I don’t like carrying the light in hands, so head lamp seems like a better option. I recommend getting a rechargeable one as you won’t have to carry the batteries. Not only its an extra weight but some small airlines might not like it in your carry-on.
Sun protection. I packed enough of sunscreen to get me though a month of traveling. Also, sun hat and good sunglasses. I am not a hat person, but Asia gets so hot you won’t care about the style at all. Not only you will need a protection from the beating sun but also the heat. Any kind of packable straw hat or wiser with the wide brim is a great investment.
This is one of the items you are debating yeas or not. And I did too. Until I’ve experienced pouring rain in Vietnam (we walked for 2 hours until finding our destination !!!), extremely dirty boats in Thailand and my backpack accidentally dropped in the water in Malaysia. Also, as I backpacker you are mentally ready for the long waits at the bus station or airport delays when your backpack pretty much turns into a bench to sit or a bed to sleep. So why not protect it? I own two waterproof sleeves: one for my daypack and one for the main large backpack. Never regretted even once spending 40$ on both. I reused it for my trips to central America as well.
Pickpocketing protection. I know it seems irrelevant for Asia but… better be safe than sorry. While crime level in Asia is very low, and the chances of you being brutally robbed are insignificant, theft still exist on the smaller scale. I know some travelers who lost their phones, money or cameras due to the theft mostly in buses or markets. Have few hidden spots where you distribute the cash. The fanny pack might not be the most glamorous one, but it is probably the most convenient. Only keep there a small one day worth of spending money. I also own an anti-theft purse. Obviously, nothing will guarantee a 100% success rate but a good combination of the right hiding techniques leading by your good judgement should keep you safe.
Travel health insurance
Another important subject is the vaccination and travel health insurance. I did my research and decided to skip the vaccination. Instead I’m getting my immune system prepped few months before the trip: double up on Vitamin C, intense work outs and health supplements.
As for the travel insurance I said yes. Just as I did for my first SE Asia trip. Luckily, I don’t get to use it but having it in my pocked gave me a peace of mind. After all, I only paid $95 for a month covering all counties I am planning to visit.
In-flight comfort kit
No matter where are you from, the chances that you are traveling to SE Asia for long hours are high. Take the advantage of your 10+ hours commute. I am not going to argue it is not going to be a spa-like day but do yourself a favor and get ready. Invest into good quality noise cancellation ear buds and plugs. Screaming babies or hard core snoring passenger will be crossed out from your list. Eye mask is a huge thing to get some sleepy time. And last but not list is the travel pillow. It’s a burden to carry it after the flight but something light and not bulky would be a great thing to have as you can re-use it at the bus or train rides. I picked Trtl Pillow as it fits most of my requirements (except the $30 price).
I also like to give my skin some help as it gets very dry. On the top of staying hydrated (sorry to all of my isle neighbors for my constant bathroom breaks!) I bring along some refreshing spray, wipes, lotion and nourishing mask. Your skin will thank you upon landing! Wouldn’t hurt to keep tooth brush
Now I feel prepared to the journey! Save and adventurous travels to all of you fellow backpackers! Thank me later for these tips!
P.S. I will update this list after my return to provide you with the most recent tips and tricks.