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What to pack on a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia

Updated on August 15, 2012

Southeast Asia is one of the best backpacking destinations in the world: it's cheap, there's a great infrastructure in place for travelers, and it collects half a dozen countries and cultures in a condensed area. Relax on Thailand's gorgeous beaches, visit hill tribes in Laos, check out magnificent Angkor Wat, or go adventure caving in Malaysia -- there's tons to do and tons to see.

Many would-be travelers have one burning question, though: What should I pack? Fortunately, most things you'll need, you can find there. Southeast Asia is bursting with shops and vendors and agencies catering to tourists, and youth hostels and hotels can provide further assistance in obtaining necessities. So don't sweat it too much. Plus, prices will be lot cheaper than in a developed, advanced industrial nation.

However, here are some recommendations on things to bring from the US:

  • Medicinal items.Malaria pills, laxatives, high-quality bug spray, and other medicinal and health-related items are good to grab before you leave. Contact solution, tampons, and powerful DEET-spray in particular can be hard to find in certain Southeast Asian countries. Don't worry about basics like toothpaste or soap, though; those items are plentiful.
  • Anything where great quality is required.You can find items of all nature in SE Asia, for dirt cheap prices, but the quality might be suspect. So for items where quality is important -- sport sandals, for example -- the best place to buy is still home.
  • Some betadine or a good antiseptic. You'll want a great antiseptic on hand for minor bruises and cuts.
  • Some old novels to read and trade. Many Southeast Asian hostels and cafes (particularly those catering to tourists) host book exchanges. The quality of available books is sometimes lackluster, but it's nice to have some novels on hand to swap out. Some cafes and hostels also sell reproduced copies of popular US novels.
  • Electronics. Bring your iPod and camera from home; the good stuff won't be much cheaper abroad.
  • A good guidebook. You'll want to read up on your destinations before you arrive. Don't forget to research common scams in the area; many travelers are caught unaware by scam artists when they first land, lost and confused. Personally, I'm a fan of the popular Lonely Planet series.
  • A debit card. ATMs are plentiful in almost all Southeast Asia countries and are a convenient way to grab cash. Look into setting up a checking account with a bank that doesn't charge high fees for foreign transactions.
  • A quality backpack. You can find cheap small day bags easily in Southeast Asia, but make sure you have a solid, durable, comfortable backpack for your main luggage--one that sits snugly on your body and can withstand a little abuse. Consider buying a rain cover if you'll be traveling in monsoon season.
  • Clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. To show respect for local culture, it's often best to cover up your shoulders and knees. This protocol varies from place to place; in more modern, Westernized areas, standards are lax. And you can always buy clothing abroad. But err on the side of caution, and bring some conservative clothing for when you first land.
  • A lock. Many hostels provide lockers, so a good lock is nice to have. You can also find one abroad, though.
  • Earplugs. You'll likely be sleeping in noisy buses or bunking under loud snorers. If you're a light sleeper, ear plugs are a nice luxury.

And here are some things that are easy to buy abroad. (The best starting point for traveling might be Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand. It's a tourist hub and it's home to hundreds of vendors catering to Western travelers. You can buy comfy clothes, a day pack, fruit juices, souvenirs, shoes--you name it. You can even pay to get your iPod filled up.)

  • A day pack. Besides your main luggage/backpack, a day pack is nice to have for day trips. Don't worry about buying one in the states though. You can grab one on the cheap in most Southeast Asian countries.
  • Flip flops. These are plentiful abroad too--and cheap!
  • Extra clothing.
  • Basic toiletries such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush.


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    • backpacking profile image

      backpacking 6 years ago

      Hey, Great article, just finished my Southeast Asia Backpacking trip and im missing it already!

      Check out my blog

      For more tips and guides on backpacking in Southeast Asia.


    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      A lot of backpackers get extra cash by teaching English as a Foreign Language. I'd say don't forget to pack a good dictionary and some teaching materials.

    • Corin profile image

      Corin 6 years ago

      You have here a good list of what to do before travelling. This will avoid to stress before my trip there :)