What to bring (and not bring) travelling in South-East Asia

June 26, 2016 10:15 am


Packing is tough. I can’t even pack for a weekend away without it turning into several days of outfit planning and a very late night of last minute jobs (my permanently scruffy nails MUST be painted) BUT packing for long-term trips and backpacking is very different! When you are sweating it out on a trek no one cares if your outfit each day looks the same as the last, and when you’re in a Bangkok market your pretty accessories might be the one thing that make it harder for you to barter a price down – after all, anyone with THAT much TopShop jewellery must have a lot of money to spend.

Basically, as much as you want and need some home comforts along the way, backpacking is all about necessity. This comes from the girl who left home geared up for every possible circumstance, and hated her 25kg rucksack every step of the way. In my ploy to improve this relationship, and save my rapidly aging back, here are the things I’ve learnt to leave at home, and the things I couldn’t travel without.

Tom and I have both learnt many packing lessons from our time on the road...

Tom and I have both learnt many packing lessons from our time on the road…


1. Plug and washing powder

One of the incredible luxuries of travelling Asia and similar places is that it makes having your clothes washed, dried and folded into a neat little parcel(!) one of the most affordable everyday activities. Whilst it might be useful to hand wash a pair of underwear when you’ve convinced yourself you can wait *just one more day*, you will find yourself working through your whole rucksack worth of clothes before finding a local more than willing to relieve you of the whole stinking lot for 24 hours, costing all of about £1. Trust me, carrying a fresh bundle of clean folded clothes back to your hostel the next day is as near as a home comfort you will get in Asia – a gross hostel sink and a load of dripping clothes hanging from your bunk for days is not!

2. Industrial sized toiletries

I made the mistake on my first backpacking trip of packing the biggest of all my toiletries – basically thinking I would be saving money and also that certain things wouldn’t be available in Asia. Firstly, this was ridiculous as you don’t actually realise how heavy toiletries are – I’m pretty sure a good few kilos of my bag weight were down to my giant bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. Secondly, Asia is not Mars. Whilst you might have trouble getting hold of your dry shampoo or specific hair products, cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City have Boots and other similar stores where you can replace these products. Make-up isn’t so easy, but to be honest in the heat you will find yourself using much less than at home. DO BEWARE products with a bleaching agent – whiteness is deemed ‘desireable’ so unless you want to shed that hard earned tan be sure to avoid any shower gels or foundations with whitening agents!

3. Walking boots

When planning my trip and trekking excursions in Chiang Rai and Sapa I was convinced I would need walking boots. I am so glad I stuck with a comfortable pair of regular trainers – aside from the bulk-factor, you’re unlikely to trek in monsoon season where such hardy shoes are necessary, and your sweaty overheated feet would DEFINITELY not thank you for it!

4. Laptop

This will be an area of contention, but if you are just taking a laptop for the sake of Skyping home and checking Facebook I would definitely leave it at home. You quickly learn when in Asia that the less items of value you have on your person the better – it’s more hassle trying to ensure your hostel always has a safe and trustworthy place to leave things, and is a worry on night-buses or if you choose to do overnight treks or trips where you have to leave the majority of your possessions. Asian wifi is nowhere near as awful as you might expect – I found it good enough for social media and Skype, but on the few occasions it wasn’t it was easy enough to venture to an Internet cafe for an hour. I never regretted not having to carry or worry about a laptop, and I do think it creates quite a barrier, although of course an unintended one, to be sat on a laptop in the social area of a hostel – but it’s obviously a personal choice.

5. Too many clothes!

I know how easy it is to think about what you’d wear in six months at home and be tempted to try stuff that in your rucksack. Sad as it is no girl wants to be wearing the same dress in every Instagram and Facebook post, and it’s easy to tire of clothes quickly when you wear them day in day out, but it really is a mistake to cram too much in your bag – for practical reasons as well as that you will pick up so much along the way. When a friend told me she bought the majority of her clothes in Asia for a matter of pounds I didn’t believe her, but there are markets everywhere tailored towards backpackers with clothes that not only look great but are so much more fitting for Asian weather than the bits you’ll pick up before you leave at home. And when you pay so little for things it isn’t as much of a big deal if you lose, ruin or tire of them – it’s the perfect chance to grab some more! The best things to take from home are simple, light t-shirts, vests and shorts or dresses – the mad Asia prints you can pick up over there, and the less you take the better excuse you have to treat yourself out there – especially when tailor-made outfits are such a bargain too!


1. A travel sleeping bag

I’ll admit, when my most high-maintenance friend advised me to buy one of these ahead of my trip I was sceptical. Particularly when she added ‘spray it with your Mum’s Chanel and it’ll be such a comfort’. I did invest in one (although I went cheap rather than high-end silk like I was advised), and although I didn’t have any Chanel to spray it on it it was definitely the most used item in my pack. Whilst it functions as a sleeping bag it is thin cotton, so it allows you to snuggle up on a sleeper bus or train but doesn’t make you sweat. It also folds to be smaller than a water bottle so is barely noticeable in your bag. Night buses can be prone to blasting air-con through the night (hard to believe I know) so I was always incredibly smug to be able to whack this out and cuddle up. I’ve also been on plenty of sleepers or even hostel beds with suspect stains etc, so it’s a great way to avoid sleeping on dirty or itchy mattresses – and it can easily be washed with the rest of your clothes. I wouldn’t ever head back to Asia without this.

2. A padlock and key

It probably goes without saying in any hostel that leaving your laptop or passport on your bunk bed is asking for trouble. This is all the more crucial in Asia where people can be desperate and therefore ruthless – it’s not unheard of to have a whole backpack stolen or items taken from your side at night. Your absolute best mate when it comes to security is a padlock – I trusted leaving my passport and other important items in a locker over leaving them with reception staff a lot of the time. Keep your things safe!

3. Money belt or second wallet

Whilst the idea of wearing a money belt seems uncomfortable and perhaps a little old fashioned, at least having a second store for money and back cards is such a valuable and safe idea. I did take a money belt and whilst I only physically wore it for two days while I sussed out how safe Asia was as a tourist (and how irritating money belts are under your clothes in hot climates), I used it throughout to separate my money and cards, and always left this in my locker with my passport and other valuable documents. It sounds silly but with such a large tightly packed bag it’s easy to forget where things are and think you’ve lost well-hidden money and cards – always having this handy and tucking it in the foot of my sleeping bag on night buses felt like a pretty safe option for me.

4. A travel towel

I personally hated my travel towel – it smelt like a dog within a matter of days and no matter how much I tried to dry myself I always felt slightly damp. However, they do dry so much more quickly than normal towels, and save you a hell of a lot of room. In the hierarchic importance of elements in my backpack, a towel didn’t rank highly when it came to squeezing in another dress or pair of shoes, but we all need to wash so make it as easy and lightweight for yourself as you can!

5. A concise First Aid kit

This, like toiletries, is another area that you can either be savvy or entirely over the top. Yes, plasters, Savlon, paracetamol and Immodium/rehydration sachets will come in useful. You are likely to cut yourself or get blisters at some point, and let’s face it – most of us experience the joys of a dodgy belly at some point in Asia, so these items are essential when accidents and illness happen. However, it’s so easy to go to Superdrug and convince yourself that you need the bumper First Aid kit complete with needles and a whole body’s worth of bandages, as it is Asia after all… But it’s not true! They have hospitals just like us and if you do find yourself needing injections, stitches or a large amount of bandaging a trip to the hospital is probably on the cards anyway… I did worry as I ditched and dumped unnecessary medical items that I’d come to calamity the next day, but even when I managed to trip over a big rock and cut my knee quite badly in Pai (don’t ask) a heavy dose of Savlon and a large pad was enough. Again, don’t forget they do have pharmacies in Asia for anything specific you come to need!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Travel Tips & Guides Articles