Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s paradise. But before you can get there, you need to deal with every girl’s eternal travel struggle: packing. After backpacking through Thailand for two weeks, I picked up a few tips for what to (and mainly what not to) pack. Whether you plan on bringing only a small backpack or a full suitcase, the following ten tips will keep your backpack light and make sure you have all the necessities for a perfect Southeast Asian travel experience.
1. Pack Less
I know, I know. Much easier than it sounds. But I promise you, your back will thank you. Carrying around more than 40 pounds on your back gets very old, very quick.
My biggest suggestion is to start packing at least a week in advance. Each day go back to your suitcase and take out at least 2-3 items. By the end of the week you will be down to the essentials.
Packing less is especially easy in Thailand, where they have shops who will wash, dry, and fold your laundry at an unbeatable rate of about 30 baht (less than $1) per kilogram of laundry. So it’s easy to rely just on the essentials.
Another way to make sure you pack as light as possible is to bring clothes you’re thinking of retiring/donating in the near future. After wearing them on your trip you can simply leave them at the hotel, and make more room in your backpack for souvenirs to bring home!
2. Sundresses, Sundresses, Sundresses
One of the easiest ways to pack light is to take advantage of sundresses. They save you the hassle of matching a top and bottoms, and weigh next to nothing. Also, since they are roll-able and tend not to wrinkle, they are perfect for packing in a backpack.
3. Leave Your Fancy Clothes at Home
Seriously. Southeast Asia is an extremely casual place, especially if you are intending on spending most of your time in the islands, where standard dress is a bathing suit and shorts. If you are looking to pack something for nights out, sundresses are definitely the way to go. But do not, and I repeat do not, pack a pair of heels for Southeast Asia. Flip flops all the way.
4. Do Not Bring a Hairdryer/Straightener
I promise you. You will not need them. I was incredibly wary of this, given my hair’s natural affinity to explode whenever it touches humidity, but carrying heavy and space-consuming hair appliances is definitely not worth the hassle. First, trying to do your hair in Southeast Asia is usually a lost cause, given the humidity. Second, there’s about a 95% chance that any American hair appliance you attempt to use will explode within a matter of seconds, even if you use a converter/adapter, and even if it says it should work abroad. Thai outlets just do not like American hairdryers. This I have learned. Save yourself the space/weight in your suitcase and invest in some curling/anti-humidity products. Embrace the air dry!
One huge advantage of travelling with your girlfriends is the ability to share your luggage. Coordinate beforehand and assign each traveler certain cosmetics to bring, like shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, etc. That way each traveler isn’t bringing the exact same items. And obviously, this applies to clothes as well. Travelling is the perfect excuse to borrow your friend’s dress you’ve been eyeing for weeks.
6. Backup Payment
This one is a must. I can tell you first hand, losing your debit card to a Thai ATM is not a wonderful feeling, especially if your cash reserves are running low. To avoid having to borrow from your fellow travelers, make sure you have a backup source for getting cash, especially because most places in the more remote areas of Southeast Asia, including the Thai islands, usually do not accept credit cards. While opening multiple bank accounts with multiple debit/ATM cards prior to a trip may seem extreme, it could be a lifesaver.
7. Bring a Water Bottle
When you are traveling in less developed parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, the availability of clean drinking water is often limited. Generally, the safest option is to either buy bottled water or to be extremely wary of the sources from which you obtain your water (I was advised to never drink water in Thailand which was served with ice that wasn’t hollow). Another option is to purchase a water bottle with a built-in filter. In addition to ensuring that you’re drinking safe drinking water, this will also save you some money, and help the environment. Filtered water bottles can run as cheap as $8 – the price of only a couple bottles of water!
8. Comfy, Durable Shoes
Ladies, this one is a must. Whether you are hiking to the temples in Chiang Mai, walking throughout Ho Chi Minh City, or exploring Bangkok on foot, flip flops are just not going to cut it. Whether it be Toms, Keds, or even running shoes, just make sure you have something comfortable for those long treks.
I’m sure by now you’ve picked up on my not-so-subtle hint that Southeast Asia is far from fancy. Accordingly, an expansive set of makeup is definitely not necessary. I’d advise sticking to the basics. That being said, one thing I used every day on my trip was waterproof mascara. Between the swimming, sweating, and extreme humidity, waterproof anything is a definite must in Southeast Asia.
10. Overnight Flight Tools
This last one is a big one. Hopefully, unlike me, you are able to book a flight that is fairly direct, unlike my venture from New Orleans to Houston to Moscow to Singapore and finally to Bangkok. But even so, you’ll need to be prepared. I recommend packing the following flight basics in your carry on to help you survive the overnight flight: kindle, headphones, comfy sweatshirt/jacket, heavy socks, and healthy snacks. Also, one of my biggest recommendations is to make sure your kindle is stocked with multiple options, and that you have started at least one of the books before getting to the airport. This way, you’ll know that you aren’t stuck with a total dud of a read for a 15-hour flight.
And there you have it, your ten tips for packing for Southeast Asia. Now it’s just time to bring on the beach, buckets, and mango sticky rice. Enjoy!