Staring at an empty suitcase, you're probably wondering: what to bring to Asia?
There is no one packing list for Asia travel that works for everyone; the goal is to get into the right mindset.
Packing for lots of unknowns can contribute to pre-trip stress. Most items can be purchased inexpensively once you arrive. You'll inevitably take advantage of cheap shopping opportunities in Asia, so your bags are guaranteed to grow.
Leave room — being overpacked isn't fun and will certainly make getting around a lot less enjoyable.
Unless you'll really be going into the wild, chances are that you can buy whatever you forgot to pack. There are, however, a handful of items that may be tougher to locate, more expensive, or unavailable altogether in Asia.
Consider Bringing These Items With You
Although there are exceptions, these items are best brought from home:
- Deodorant: The deodorants in Asia rarely contain antiperspirant; many are just sticky perfumes. Others contain whitening agents — check ingredients carefully if they're listed in English. Western brands are sometimes available but may by expensive when you find them.
- Sunscreen: Although whitening creams are common, locals may prefer to cover skin or carry an umbrella rather than apply sunscreen. Much of the sunscreen that you find will either be expired, will contain whitening cream, or will be expensive and less effective.
- Insect Repellent: Despite the prevalence of mosquitoes and dengue fever in tropical parts of Asia, the local insect repellent may or may not work effectively.
- Condoms: Condoms in Asia can sometimes be expired or unsafe because of improper storage in hot climates.
- Passport Photos: Some countries require one or two passport photos when you apply for visas, permits, or mobile phone SIM cards. Bringing your own official-sized photos will save the time, hassle, and expense of having photos made on the spot. Any printing shop at home can duplicate a few sheets of passport photos for cheap.
- Small Padlock: If you intend to stay in hostels or budget hotels, bring along a padlock for securing your valuables in the lockers provided. Also, some rooms in budget hotels can be locked via a padlock on the outside; bringing your own provides an extra layer of security.
- Tampons: Women should bring tampons from home; they can be difficult to find outside of big cities in Asia.
- Small Compass: No need for anything fancy, just a small ball-style compass will do fine when your smartphone maps aren't available or reliable. Sometimes directions come in the form of "turn west at the end of the road."
- U.S. Dollars: No matter the current state of the economy, the dollar still works well as a source of emergency funds in much of the world. The dollar is used frequently in Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.
- Vitamins: Public transportation and jet lag can be tough on the immune system until your body readjusts. Consider bringing vitamins or supplements to boost the immune system, or better yet, take advantage of the delicious fruit in Asia.
- Drink Mixes: The tap water in many countries in Asia isn't safe. Drinking bottled water to replace fluids lost in Southeast Asia's heat gets boring. Many of the choices in minimarts are full of sugar. Consider bringing drink packs with electrolytes that can be added to bottled water.
- Point-It Book: The Point-It book by Graf Editions is useful in places such as rural China and India where communication can be a challenge. The smartphone app is an alternative.
- Rain Cover: Luggage is sometimes put on top of buses and on the decks of ferries. A pop-up storm could leave your stuff soaked, even if you're not traveling during the monsoon season. A lightweight rain cover comes in handy for protecting backpacks. If nothing else, consider lining suitcases with a plastic garbage bag.
Toiletries in Asia
Although toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletries are relatively cheap in Asia, you may not find the familiar Western brands you prefer.
Check lotions, creams, and deodorants for whitening agents before you buy them.
Medicines and First Aid
Pharmacies can be found throughout Asia, but your prescription medications may be sold under different names and labels.
For convenience, bring a few medical essentials along.
If carrying a lot of pills on an extended trip, bring along copies of a prescription or doctor's order. Many prescription medications can be purchased directly over the counter in Asia.
Items to Carry at All Times
- Toilet Paper: Many countries in Asia do not provide it in public toilets. Always keep some handy for encounters with squat toilets. Don't flush toilet paper unless you're certain doing so won't cause a problem. Although there are a few exceptions, the sewer systems in many countries cannot process paper. Instead, put the toilet paper into the bin beside of the toilet.
- Hand Sanitizer: Those same public toilets that do not have toilet paper also will not have soap for washing your hands afterward.
- Smartphone or Small Camera: The most random things can be seen when wandering the streets of big cities in Asia — be prepared! Although a larger camera such as an SLR will help you to capture great pictures, you may not always have time to get it out fast enough.
Stuff to Leave at Home
Travelers end up packing a lot of things they don't need. These items should be left at home:
- Voltage Converter: Most electronic chargers can operate between 120 and 240 volts; look on the power adapter for the operating range. Unless you carry devices that specifically only work on the U.S. standard of 120 volts, you do not need to bring a heavy power converter. USB chargers for most modern devices are typically dual voltage.
- Phrase Books: Although guidebooks may be somewhat useful and most have limited language guides in the back, phrase books are becoming a remnant of the past. Smartphone apps will better help with pronunciation, or better yet, ask a local to teach you one or two new words daily. At least you'll learn the right usage and pronunciation with human help.
- Personal Protection: Pepper spray, stun guns, and other weapons that are legal in Western countries may not be legal where you are going. You could get yourself into trouble when crossing borders with such items. Don't worry: with crime lately far lower than expected in big cities, it's easy to stay safe in Asia.
Should You Bring a Smartphone?
Many U.S. mobile phones will not work in Asia. Unless your phone is GSM compatible (T-Mobile and AT&T) and will work with SIM cards, it will not work for making calls in Asia. On the other hand, a smartphone can be used solely for internet access and to make internet calls with services such as Skype and WhatsApp. There are many options to call home from abroad. Find out if you can use your cell phone for international travel.