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What to Pack for a Southeast Asia Backpacking Trip

After 2 months of backpacking through Southeast Asia, I have my luggage down to a science.

The most important part of packing is to not pack anything. It’s too easy to just hear this statement and just go “yeah yeah yeah, I’m going to bring my travel-size hair dryer and travel-size hairspray and only 4 pairs of shoes because everyone needs their slutty pair of heels.”

No.

Put all your crap into your backpack. God forbid you bring a suitcase. Have you tried arriving at an island in a rickety wooden longboat, wading through waist-deep water, and then trekking for half a mile across a beach with a suitcase? Because I have.

Do you see those little boats in the water? And how they aren’t directly on the shore? You have to walk through that water. 

Then go to the gym, turn off the A/C, and go for a brisk walk on the treadmill for 1 hour straight while sweaty weightlifters beat you up, mosquitoes attack you, and someone blasts ABBA in the background. (This is a frighteningly accurate depiction of arriving in a new city.) See how much you want your travel-size hairdryer then.

These are the clothes you should bring, and the ONLY clothes you should bring for Southeast Asia (list tailored for females):

  • – 2 tshirts
  • – 2 tank tops
  • – 1 pair of shorts
  • – 1 pair of light pants
  • – 7 pairs of underwear
  • – 2 pairs of socks
  • – 2-3 bras
  • – 2 bikinis
  • – 1 pair of flip flops
  • – 1 pair of sneakers
  • – 1 black convertible pencil dress from American Apparel

Don’t even THINK about bringing anything else.

Once you’re there, you should purchase:

  • – 2 sarongs

A sarong will save your life. A sarong is the most versatile and amazing thing in the world. It’s more awesome than Santa Claus covered in rainbow sprinkles.

That’s me, rocking a sarong on laundry day at the beach in Ko Lanta, Thailand. 

You can wear a sarong as a flowing tube top. Or a halter dress. Or a skirt. You use it as a bag. If your sheets are kinda gross, you can lay it on top and not fear catching yet another weird skin disease. It’s a fantastic beach towel, head wrap, modesty shawl for temples, pillow case, and blanket for chilly bus rides. You can fold it up and prop your head on a windowsill. It is amazing, dries quick, packs light, and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination and manual dexterity.

Don’t forget to bring a first aid kit and sunscreen (sunscreen is not cheaper in Asia than at home). You can always buy this upon arrival at a 7-Eleven, but it’s convenient to have. Every single scratch and cut gets infected with alarming speed in the tropics.

I never really paid attention to cuts back home – they inevitably healed up without my intervention. But I’ve become an iodine nazi now, swabbing antibiotics every 2 hours and changing bandages twice a day. Because infected cuts ain’t fun!!

Equally important is HOW you pack your backpack. Remember this: plastic bags are your friend.

Put your tops and dress in one bag. Put your bottoms in another. Bring another plastic bag for dirty clothes. Bring zip-locks for your chargers, USB, makeup, first aid kit, and other miscellaneous items. When you arrive in your ganky-ass hostel, this will save you from having to dig up the entire contents of your backpack to find your swimsuit, only to repack it hastily upon departure. Just remove the plastic bags and put them back in once you have to go. Easy!

Now you are ready to go on an adventure.*

*And by adventure, I mean hanging out with drunken British teenagers on their gap year.

Discussion

16 Responses to “What to Pack for a Southeast Asia Backpacking Trip”

  1. Great advice. It’s so hard to pack light but this is the perfect list. Sarongs are every travellers best friend – even for guys. Use a sarong instead of a towel or beach blanket to save so much space in your backpack. Also, remember that you can buy virtually everything you will ever want while you are out there.

    Posted by Monica | Gap Daemon | December 20, 2011, 5:37 am
  2. Excellent list and informative article. Sounds like you’re having a great time!

    Posted by D Washington | January 9, 2012, 8:38 am
  3. Great advice. I also pack as little as I can when traveling because aside from the essentials, if you ever need any more clothes, you can just buy them (and everything is super cheap in Asia anyway). So are you back in the US now? Are you planning to post more about your amazing trip? Can’t wait to see the photos!

    Posted by Kate S. | January 13, 2012, 11:11 pm
  4. Such a great article! Heading out to s.e.a for four months from Canada in a month today actually, and will be def using this as a rough guide on what to pack :*
    Loveeeeeee it!
    -X

    Posted by ALEXIS S. | January 29, 2013, 9:27 am
  5. @Rush,
    Yess I am! How bout you?! Feel free to send me an email alexisizansilver@hotmail.com
    X

    Posted by Alexis | February 17, 2013, 12:48 pm
  6. The awkward moment when reading this you’re the drunken British teenager on their gap year..

    How many others will I come across?

    Posted by Annalise | April 11, 2013, 1:59 pm
  7. thanks a lot, great advice! :)

    Posted by seona | April 29, 2013, 3:16 am
  8. Most of the southeast Asia places I have visited are tropical places like the Philippines. So bringing loose clothing is suggested. Anyway, you can also buy clothes wherever you go. I want to share this travel app which lately I have downloaded from http://www.gpapps.com.au/call-emergency-app/. Very helpful in case of emergency.

    Posted by Jay H. Hoeft | August 18, 2013, 9:06 pm
  9. Thank you for sharing this very informative post. I really enjoyed reading it; it’s very helpful.

    Posted by trekking morocco | December 15, 2013, 7:00 am
  10. Thank you for this list! I’m planning my RTW to SEA and this is the first list of clothes to pack for chicks that wasn’t absurd (being told of all the fabulous opportunities to be photographed in cute dresses to make your girlfriends jealous). Much appreciated!

    Posted by sam | September 28, 2014, 4:45 pm
  11. Just like to add a top with covered shoulders/long sleeves
    Again you can buy this out there but some of the stricter temples won’t accept a sarong to cover up !
    Good tips though, I’ve just returned from a month in se Asia and took far too many tops and shorts !

    Posted by Vicky | January 18, 2015, 7:58 am
  12. Nice post! Love Southeast Asia, good tips on what’s packed!

    Posted by David | November 19, 2015, 6:58 am
  13. nice post keep it up realy enjoyed your post

    Posted by Keeley Jervey | June 10, 2016, 1:18 am

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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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