This article is a comprehensive list of what to pack for Southeast Asia. Figure out what to take, what to leave at home and other useful packing tips for your trip!
Hi, my name is Bruno and I’m an addict of Southeast Asia.
It’s such a diverse and intense region of the planet, with so much to see and explore. So many different cultures, ethnicities and experiences. And don’t get me started on the food!
If you have been there, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re just planning to go there for the first time, well congrats, you made a great decision!
This article is intended to help you decide what to pack for Southeast Asia. Whether you’re going to Thailand or somewhere else, from my experience it can be an overwhelming and headachy process. As important as what you bring is what you leave at home.
I’ll try to help make your mind and provide a complete list of what to take for backpacking in Southeast Asia. Everything from the backpack you should take to the documents you don’t want to forget.
Let’s start packing!
What to pack for Southeast Asia
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How NOT to overpack for Southeast Asia
The most common mistake travelers do is overpacking. In my first big trips, I used to bring everything “just in case”. Over the years I’ve realized these “just in case” items are rarely used and the reason we carry way too much weight. If an item is “just in case”, don’t take it!
Overpacking is such a serious issue that people are selling anti-overpacking courses on the web and making money out of it.
My opinion is that you don’t need to spend money in these. Save your money, follow the next FREE guidelines and you’ll be fine.
Be smart about what you pack.
Bring only things that are high priority. Despite lacking some first-world amenities, in Southeast Asia you can easily find basic hygiene items, meds, clothes, etc. Actually, shopping in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore can be at least as productive than Western countries.
Check the weather of all the places you’re planning to go. While most Southeast Asia is warm all year-round, there are some countries where it can get really chilly, depending on the time of the year.
Bring old clothes/items that you plan to ditch during your trip. Give it away to someone in need if possible. I do it all the time and is a win-win: you make room for new things and you get to renovate your closet.
Organization is key.
A very important thing when you’re on the road is the level of organization of your stuff. During my previous trips, my stuff evolved to become a giant mass of clothes. Not functional nor pleasant to see, specially because during a trip we tend to go through our stuff looking for things CONSTANTLY. These magic boxes help a lot.
Another thing to keep in mind is how you distribute weight. Heavier items should be placed closer to you.
Be strict about numbers.
Don’t bring more than 10 items of the same kind. Whether it’s socks, underwear, t-shirts, whatever, and regardless of the duration of your trip. If you need more, you can either buy it or wash it.
Your backpack should weight a maximum of around 12 kilos. More than that and will start become real heavy and uncomfortable on your back. Another good rule of thumb is to fill your backpack to a maximum of 50% of its volume.
Here’s exactly the process I use when I’m packing.
The 3 Piles Strategy
I’ve read about this packing strategy somewhere a few years ago. It’s tremendously simple but it works. I’ve been doing this for my longer trips for some years now and has eased my packing decision process. It goes like this:
A few days before the trip, I start with everything I think I need to pack and separate it in 3 piles: “Go”, “Stay” and “Maybe”. If you can spread this decisioning across different days, the better.
I do another round for the “Maybes” just the night before my flight. This time, they can only go to “Go” or “Stay” piles.
Now that you know the basics, let’s go into more detail about what to bring for Southeast Asia. Starting with the backpack!
The last time I island-hopped Thailand I couldn’t help to find silly to see people disembarking the longtail boats on the beaches with fancy carry-ons. They need it to carry them over their heads the entire beach to where the paved roads start. User friendliness level: non-existent.
If you don’t have a travel backpack, I strongly recommend you getting one for traveling Asia. It will give you much more flexibility on the road than a carry-on. You probably will spend a lot of time moving around in beaches, rough terrains and dirt roads, all places where a backpack is much more convenient.
A 25L one should be fine for a week’s trip. For trips longer than a week, you’ll need a 40-70L one to bring all your stuff with you. You might want to bring a small backpack as well for everyday use.
Characteristics a good travel backpack must have
Quite obvious this one, isn’t it? You may be carrying your home around for several hours a day, make sure you feel good with it and that the weight is well distributed.
Because no one likes Rorschach-inspired sweat stains on the back of the shirt.
After days on the road, you start losing the internal backpack organization you had in the beginning. And trust me, finding small items in a 70L backpack can be stressing moment. Small compartments come in very handy and help you divide the backpack into functional “areas”.
Or just go with these little helpers.
- Easy access.
I hate backpacks that you can only open from the top. A good travel backpack gives you easy access to all areas and compartments. However, it also needs to be…
You’ll lost sight of your travel backpack many times during your trip. It’s important that it closes completely and that it’s hard to break into. Padlocks and rain covers can add extra security.
Here are some recommendations for all kinds of sizes, including my own current travel backpack.
Clothes to pack for Southeast Asia
The best clothing tip is to dress like a local. Most countries in Southeast Asia have high temperatures all year round, so there’s no reason to pack warm and volumous clothes. Flip-flops are enough for most of the days.
Bring thin comfy clothes of neutral colors. They’re easier to combine and to maintain. Plus, nothing puts a giant “tourist” label on you than flashy or highly patterned shirts.
Dark clothes are easier to maintain and don’t get dirty so easily, but they also retain more heat. When it’s a humid 35C sunny day, the last thing you want is to wander around in a black t-shirt.
For longer travels, remember most hotels and hostels in Asia have laundry service so you can easily reuse your stuff. So no reason to overpack!
This is what you’ll be wearing most of the time so invest in some decent ones.
- Trekking shoes.
Only if you plan to go to remote areas. Here are some top-rated shoes recommendation for men and for women.
- Comfortable shoes/sneakers.
For daily urban use. If possible impermeable!
Obviously. Rule of thumb: 7 per week of travel, limit of 10.
You’re probably not going to be wearing them most of the time. I’d say a maximum of 6-7 pairs is enough.
For everyday use. Rule of thumb: 2 per week of travel, limit of 5.
- Loose cotton shorts.
Can be used as pyjamas or sport equipment.
One pair, for chilly nights.
- Hiking pants.
If you plan to do some trekking. It prevents mosquito bites, it provides protection for vegetation and small animals and can be also be used to go out at night.
They can get unusable for sweaty reasons really quickly, but at the same time you can find literally TONS of t-shirts in Asia at laughable prices. I’d say 2-3 per week of travel, limit of 7.
- Sleeveless shirts
They’re the best for humid climates, but you can’t enter some temples showing off your shoulders. I tend to use t-shirts for “urban” days, and sleeveless shirts for outdoors. I’d say 2 per week of travel with a limit of 4, but this depends on where you are going.
- Long-sleeve shirts.
Make sure they are made of a thin material. They can get handy when the temperature drops. 2 is enough.
- 1 light rain jacket.
- 1 warmer jacket.
Only if you’re going to cold places or higher ground (examples: Sapa in Vietnam or Cameron Highlands in Malaysia)
Other pieces of clothing
- Swimming shorts (for men) and bikini/swimsuit (for women)
I usually take one and buy another one whatever I’m going.
- 1 cap.
Note: You can go REALLY frugal in clothing and bring a lot less than this. I’ve met people who used ONE pair of shorts for an entire month of travels. I’m not like that. One reason is that I’m very clumsy when eating. When there’s a sauce of some kind, it lands on a piece of my clothes. EVERY. TIME.
Hygiene and health items to pack for Southeast Asia
When we’re travelling it’s time to take it easy, but let’s not become troglodytes. Many of the everyday things we need are widely available in Asia. Especially in big cities, any 7/11 will have what you need. In any case, there’s things it’s convenient to bring with you.
If possible, roll-on. They’re smaller and better for the environment anyway.
For longer trips, bring a small one and buy a bigger one later.
- Nail clipper
Many people forget this. Why having to buy a new one if you can take your own?
- Shampoo + body wash gel.
Some hotels/hostels don’t provide this, but there’s no need to load up. A couple of small bottles is enough.
- Hand sanitizer
Some say this is the best protection you can have for viruses and bacteria causing diseases. You may not realize, but you’re touching your face, eyes and mouth all the time!
- For men: beard shavers/trimmers.
- For women: razors and intimate hygiene products.
You can find most meds anywhere in Southeast Asia. All you need to go is head to the next 7/11. That said, it’s better to have some with you, in case you start feeling bad in a long plane/bus/train trip or are stuck in an remote area.
VERY important item.
- Mosquito repellent
Another key item. A good repellent can protect you from severe tropical diseases. Make sure you use one with high percentage of DEET, specially if you’re going on the rainy season. I use RELEC.
For allergies. Even you are not aware of any, you may find one new!
- Motion sickness pills
Some of the bus and boat trips in Asia can be rough. I’ll never forget my trip to Koh Lipe in Thailand.
Gadgets to pack for Southeast Asia
- Mobile phone (unlocked!)
Make sure you bring an unlocked phone. Local SIM cards are the cheaper way to stay connected in Asia.
- Digital camera
Choose a reliable and compact one. Fortunately there are now some good portable quality cameras. I travel with a Nikon camera (below) that takes up very little space.
I don’t recommend taking a laptop for a trip. Period. However if the desire to stay connected is too strong or you need to plan on doing any work choose a light weight, I highly recommend this marvel of technology.
- Power bank
Since you’ll be using your gadgets a lot more than normal, it’s essential you can power up your gadgets anytime. We are in 2017, so invest in a good one – with at least 10000mAh capacity. Here’s a list to get you started.
If you are into reading, a Kindle is a great option to bring lots of books with you without occupying much space.
Essential camera for adventure footage and photos. The new Hero 5 (below) is waterproof so you don’t need extra cases.
They will make your journeys in trains, buses and planes way more enjoyable.
- Mobile WiFi Router
Another of my top buys recently. Since I’m always traveling with a lot of gadgets with me and/or I’m traveling in a group, getting all the devices connected is a pain. The portable router I’ve got (below) is a game changer: reliable, easy to use, and a potential huge money-saver.
Accessories to pack for Southeast Asia
- Second backpack
You’ll need something to carry your stuff everyday, especially if you’re going to urban areas. This one is tailored to carry digital cameras.
Too much light can harm your eyes. Glasses with polarized lens are highly recommended.
For an extra layer of safety. Use them for hostel lockers on your backpack, to block the zippers when you’re away from your stuff.
- Microfiber towel
Plenty of the accommodation places I’ve stayed in Asia in don’t provide bathing towels. When they did, they charged for them as a first-necessity item they are. A simple microfiber towel makes all the difference. does the job, does not occupy much volume and dries super quickly.
- Wet wipes
Useful for SO many situations I don’t even know where to begin.
- Backpack cover
Weather in Southeast Asia is hard to predict and for most of the year, there are showers almost everyday. Get ready.
- Digital organizer
To keep your cables and devices tidy.
- Swiss Knife
You don’t need to be Bear Grylls to use one. It can be useful even for the little daily things.
- Notebook + Pen
Even you are not keen in showing off your drawing skills, it’s good to have something to write a note to someone, sketch something or even write down your trip memories.
- Packing Cubes
Trust me, you’ll never be able to travel without them.
Save this with your life. It’s literally the most important thing you will be carrying. A passport cover might be a good idea. Here’s my personal favorite.
Check your VISA requirements for the countries you plan to visit in advance. Vietnam is one of the most picky, but you can apply for it online
In some countries, you may need some physical photos to complete the VISA application.
- For divers: Diving licence
- Driving licence
- Credit Card
Be very careful to who and how you hand over the card as scams can be common in Asia.
- Document Organizer
Take good care of your travel documents. For safety reasons, only take with you every day the absolute essential and leave the rest at the hotel. A small organizer wallet is helpful.
- Tiger Balm
This menthol and camphor cream is mega popular in Asia. Locals say it cures everything. It may not be EVERYTHING, but it helps ease mosquito bites, muscle aches and even cough and congestion.
The first time I was in Bangkok I was overwhelmed with the potential for shopping. Particularly clothes. Whether it’s in the malls or on the street markets, you will find everything you need to wear at super cheap prices.
- Aloe Vera
For sunburns there’s nothing better, but these can be found anywhere. No need to take one from home.
Documents to take for Southeast Asia
Last but definitely not least. Make sure you have all your important travel documents in order and well organized.
Extra: What to buy in Southeast Asia
After this long list of things to carry, I thought I could add some items you should NOT bring and wait until you buy there.
Was this packing list useful? What else have you brought in your backpack travelling through Southeast Asia?