If you're planning on heading to Southeast Asia for the first time, it can be hard to know what to pack. Unfortunately, the thousands of packing lists available online don't make it any easier and often offer conflicting advice -- should you take jeans or not? Do you need a laptop? What about a first aid kit? Should you bring a backpack or a suitcase? Do you need hiking boots?
Whether you're planning on lounging on the beaches of Southern Thailand, searching for orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo, exploring the temples of Angkor or partying on a cruise around Halong Bay, we have the perfect recommendations for you.
Choosing a Backpack
First things first, suitcases are incredibly impractical for Southeast Asia and you shouldn't even consider taking one. The streets are frequently unpaved, full of potholes and many of the islands in Thailand, fo example, don't even have roads.
You'll need to bring a backpack, and the smaller the better. You should aim for a size between 40 and 60 liters and definitely no larger. While it may seem that bigger is better, remember that you'll need to carry it on your back, sometimes for an hour or more, in an extremely hot and humid climate.
A small backpack will therefore remove the temptation to overpack. There's no need to worry about forgetting something important either -- Southeast Asia is incredibly cheap so anything that you do forget can be easily replaced at a fraction of the cost.
As for which type of backpack you need? A front-loading backpack will save on packing time and is easier to keep organized, a lockable backpack will help deter thieves, and it would be great if you could find one that's waterproof -- especially if you're going to be traveling in the rainy season.
I've been traveling with an Osprey Farpoint for several years and couldn't have been happier with it. I highly recommend Osprey backpacks because they're durable, well-made, and Osprey has an amazing guarantee! If your backpack breaks for any reason at any time, they'll replace it with no questions asked. That for me definitely makes it worth your while!
There are a few places in Southeast Asia that are cold (Hanoi/Sapa in winter immediately springs to mind), but there aren't many of them, so you'll want the majority of your backpack to contain lightweight clothes, preferably made of cotton. Try to choose neutral colors so that you can mix and match in order to maximize your number of outfits. You don't need jeans in Southeast Asia (they're heavy, bulky and take hours to dry), but pack some lightweight pants for any chilly evenings or temple visits. If you're female, you'll need to pack a sarong to cover your shoulders as well.
For footwear, you can get by with just flip-flops or sandals most of the time, but pack some light hiking shoes if you plan on doing a lot of walking. I like Vibram shoes (yes, they look weird), but they're good for all kinds of outdoor activities and pack down small. Bonus: everyone will be transfixed by your feet and you'll find it far easier to make friends because of them!
Consider getting a microfiber towel as these can be huge space savers and are very quick to dry. A silk sleeping bag liner won't be used much as guesthouses in Southeast Asia are typically clean and free of bed bugs, however, it's still a good idea to carry one in case you end up staying somewhere that's a little dirty. If you're short on space, though, the silk liner is one you should skip -- I've only used it once in six years of travel!
I have to mention that clothes can be bought and replaced for a couple of dollars in Southeast Asia so don't feel as though you need to pack your entire closet for every possible occasion. If you forget to pack something, you'll be able to replace it in most towns/cities in the region, and likely at a far cheaper price than you'd pay at home.
Most medicines can be bought over the counter in Southeast Asia - including antibiotics and birth control pills, so you don't need to worry about bringing an enormous first aid kit. Pack some Tylenol, Imodium, and Dramamine (and a general purpose antibiotic if your doctor will give you one) to start with and replace them as they run out. You can pick up almost anything you need from any pharmacy (including birth control pills) in the region as you travel
You should also pack some insect repellent and sunscreen for your first few days, and you can then stock them up while you travel around.
When it comes to anti-malarials, whether you decide to take them or not is a personal decision, and it's worth speaking to your doctor before you leave to see what they recommend. I haven't ever taken anti-malarials in Southeast Asia, but malaria does exist and travelers do contract it there. Whether you decide to take them or not, remember that dengue is a far larger problem in the region, so you're going to want to wear repellent and cover up at dawn and dusk, when the mosquitoes are most active.
It's worth investing in a small toiletries bag for your trip. It helps keep everything together and the rest of your luggage dry. If you're in a rush when checking out, throwing damp shower gel bottles straight into your backpack is going to lead to smelly clothes and a gross backpack.
For travelers, I highly recommend picking up solid versions of toiletries: they're inexpensive, they're lighter, they take up less space, and they last much longer. Practically every toiletry product you can think of has a solid counterpart, whether it's shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, deodorant, or sunscreen!
In addition, I recommend packing a small bar of soap instead of shower gel, a hairbrush if you have long hair, your toothbrush and some toothpaste, a razor, tweezers, nail scissors, and a diva cup if you're a girl.
If you're all about wearing makeup, aim to keep your looks natural and minimal in Southeast Asia, as the intense humidity will likely have you sweating off your make up within minutes of stepping outside. I recommend opting for some tinted sunscreen, a brow pencil, and some eyeliner for tight-lining, and you'll quickly discover you need little else.
Laptop: Internet cafes in Southeast Asia are in rapid decline so if you plan on keeping in touch with friends and family, you'll need to bring a laptop or phone. If you're going for a laptop, look for one that's as small and light as you can get away with, especially if you'll only be using it for email, social media, and to watch movies. Try to get a laptop that has good battery life as well as an SD card slot for uploading photos.
Camera: Consider using a Micro 4/3 camera, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M10, which gives you SLR quality photos from a camera the size of a compact. If you're not sure about carrying a camera around with you and would be happy with the quality of photos on your phone, then don't feel the need to bring a camera with you.
Tablet: A tablet is a great option if you don't want to carry around a laptop, but still want to get online and watch TV shows on long travel days.
E-reader: If you're planning on doing a lot of reading on the road a Kindle Paperwhite is a worthwhile investment. The e-ink screen eliminates glare, so you'll easily be able to read a book while sunbathing on the beaches in Cambodia. It helps keep your bag lightweight because you won't need to carry any books or guidebooks with you.
Phone: If you're going to be traveling in Southeast Asia, I'd suggest getting an unlocked phone and picking up local prepaid SIM cards as you travel. These SIM cards are the cheapest option for calls, texts, and data, and are available in most grocery stores. If you don't have an unlocked phone, then opt for making phone calls using Skype over Wi-Fi.