A Packing List for Backpacking Southeast Asia: How to Pack Light, Stay Cool and Look Stylish
Let's Learn From My Mistakes Packing for Southeast Asia
Planning a backpacking trip around Southeast Asia and looking for help with your packing list from someone who has been there?
Hello, that's me! Over the past decade I've spent more than 3 years backpacking around the world. I was a travel agent. I write about travel. And I really, really love shoes.
These conflicting loves have caused me a bit of grief in the past. When I first started travelling I was guilty of bringing way too much stuff. And that is far from the only travel fashion/packing mistake I've made over the years; bringing clothes that are completely wrong for the climate, buying cheap clothes from Thai markets (and then watched the dye run and turn all my clothes green), and bringing ugly "practical" clothes.
Lucky for you, I'm here to share the lessons I learned the hard way. Like you really, really don't want to be carrying around a 70L pack when you're wandering the streets in 40C heat, searching for a guesthouse with semi clean sheets. (You're standards for cleanliness will drop.) However, my standards for style didn't. It is still important for me to look good when I'm travelling. I spent a lot of time travelling alone and when you look good, you feel confident and it is easier to meet new people. Plus you never know who you will meet - I met my boyfriend in a hostel!
So, without further ado, here is my absolutely fabulous packing list for backpacking in Southeast Asia. Find out how to pack light, stay cool and look stylish!
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The 4 Pillars of Packing for Southeast Asia
The number one mistake new backpackers make is bringing too much stuff. Please remember you will be carrying everything you bring on your back. And not just for a few minutes - sometimes you'll find yourself walking a few kilometres to catch a bus or to find a guesthouse. Travellers with big packs get taken advantage of by tuk tuk drivers and taxis. Watch how quickly the price drops when you say "No thanks, I'll just walk."
The best way to make sure you don't pack too much? Start with a small pack! This one is very lightweight and easy to carry - only 2lbs! It fully unzips so it's easy to access your stuff. Lastly, it doesn't help that it's stylish :)
Next, consider the environment in Southeast Asia - the climate, the people, your activities. The heat and humidity can be brutal, made worse when you're packed like a sardine on a tiny bus for 12 hours with no air conditioning. Packing cool and comfortable clothes will be a lifesaver. Little details, like lightweight, moisture wicking fabrics, will make a big difference.
Despite the heat, you will notice that most of the locals in Southeast Asia are modestly dressed. Outside of major tourists areas, you should follow suit. Have light layers, like scarves and floaty tops, on hand to cover up.
Lastly, don't forget style. Fashion is fun! Travelling in Southeast Asia is like living in a tropical, exotic fashion shoot. Try bold colours, add a few exotic prints, pile on the accessories. I like to get a lot of my accessories when I'm travelling; you can find a huge assortment of bracelets, necklaces, earrings, bags and scarves in the many markets across Southeast Asia.
Want to read about my Adventures in Southeast Asia?
- How to Travel the Bolaven Loop by Motorbike
Motorbiking the Bolaven Loop in Southern Laos was one of my favourite adventures of all time! Read about my adventure and my advice so you can do it yourself.
- My Wildlife Volunteering Experience in Thailand
My amazing experience volunteering at a safari park in Thailand - cuddling baby leopards, feeding monkeys, and walking tigers. Plus a debate on the ethics of animal voluntourism.
The Packing List
- 4-5 Lightweight, Moisture Wicking Tank Tops
I prefer solid colours that mix and match well with my other items made of moisture wicking/quick dry materials. I also look for thick straps; Thin spaghetti straps are too revealing in many parts of Southeast Asia. Look for versatile tanks you can dress up with a few accessories or just as easily wear hiking.
- 1 Lightweight Cover-up Top
Choose a lightweight material that adds coverage but not warmth. Keep this top in your bag and throw it over your tank when you feel the need for modesty. Right now my pick is a stylish kimono style top - a gorgeous boho style that is functional as well! Check out below for some of my fave picks.
- 1 Dress
I love having a dress when backpacking in Southeast Asia. It is nice to have something easy and lightweight to just throw on. You will get more wear out of your if you choose slightly modest cuts (avoid miniskirts and thin straps).
I don't like to travel with maxi dresses because they take up too much room in my bag. I personally think lightweight trousers are a more versatile and comfortable option.
- 1 Skirt
A skirt is a great way to stay cool, better than shorts in my opinion (you get a great breeze!) Look for a simple A-line shape, with a waist that can be rolled up and/or worn high on your waist for a shorter look or worn low on your hips if you need more modesty.
- 1 Pair Board Shorts/Active Shorts (optional)
- 1 Pair Loose Trousers
Loose trousers are a must of Southeast Asia because there are some places where shorts/skirts are not appropriate. For example, at Angkor Wat there are some temples you cannot enter unless you knees and shoulders are covered. I also wore my trousers when travelling on overnight trains and busses, because I felt more comfortable being modest. (You don't want to expose your bum while curled up sleeping!)
I would caution against knit fabrics, like yoga pants, because they are quite bulky and warm. I brought wore a pair on the flight but ended up giving them away a few weeks into my trip because they took up too much room in my bag. Thin, lightweight trousers like these fold up much smaller.
- 1 Pair Denim Shorts (optional)
We spent a lot of time at the beach and I lived in my denim shorts. The beach towns are more liberal and I felt at ease in a pair of cutoffs. However, they aren't appropriate in much of Southeast Asia, so I would leave these out if you aren't spending much time at the beach .
- I Pair Hiking Trousers (optional)
I debated a lot about whether I needed hiking pants or not. I was planning to go to Koh Sok National Park in Thailand and Taman Negara in Malaysia. In the ended I decided to bring a pair and I was a glad I did.
There are a lot of leeches in the National Parks so I felt better in pants. The pants also came in handy when doing a long motorbike trip, riding elephants (their skin is really rough) and volunteering with animals. These pants also came in handy for the flight, because when I arrived into England from Thailand it was freezing!
However, if you are planning aren't planning much adventure, you can leave these out. You don't need hiking pants for visiting Angkor Wat, your loose breezy pants are fine.
- 2 bikinis/bathing suits
- 2-3 bras
- 5-7 pairs of underwear
- 1 x pair walking socks (optional)
Bring only if you're bringing hiking boots.
- 1 x sarong (can purchase in Southeast Asia)
I used my sarong as a towel, a beach blanket, a scarf, and even a clean sheet in a not too clean guesthouse.
- jewelry and accessories
- 1 x cheap sunglasses (can purchase in Southeast Asia)
Don't bring your good sunglasses. You're going to lose them. I promise.
- 1 x crossbody leather handbag
I hate using a daypack, I feel like a tourist! A stylish, cross body leather bag is a great alternative.
- black flip flops/rubber sandals
You will be walking on dirty, unpaved roads. You will be using squat toilets. Let's just say you're going to want shoes that are easy to wash.
- hiking shoes (optional)
- dressy sandal (optional)
You will very rarely need a dress shoe. However, flat sandals take virtually no room, so I allow myself this luxury.
The tank is moisture wicking, quick drying, odor resistant and has sun guard! It comes in several neutral colours and is a great option if you like longer tanks.
This tank also has a moisture wicking system (so important in Southeast Asia!) And it has 'anti-microbial technology' to keep you from stinking (also important - ha ha!) I personally love the raceback and this tank has so many colour options.
This tank also has moisture wicking and sun protection. This is a good option if you want full back coverage and brighter colours (which really suit the tropical atmosphere!)
I LOVE this easy piece! You will need to have something to cover your shoulders in many parts of SE Asia and this piece does the job without adding warmth or sacrificing style! Or wear it on the beach as a sexy cover up. So many options and ways to style this one!
These are lightweight and a fantastic tropical print!
A nice neutral print that will go well with your bright colored tops!
These are great travelling pants, you can use them hiking (even though it's hot in SE Asia I like the long length to protect my legs.) What I love is these don't look like "hiking" pants, they are still stylish. These pants are available in different inseams.
I love the simplicity of this dress. One of the great things about Southeast Asia is the awesome markets and all the great accessories available - scarves, jewelry, bags, sandals. You can wear this dress a million different ways! It is lightweight and available in a few different colors.
This dress is so easy to wear, light weight and I love the stripes! You could easily wear this on the beach or dress it up for a night out - would love to style this with some bold boho jewelry!
What Else? - Here are a few more tips for a life on the road.
Bring dental floss and a sewing needle large enough to fit the dental floss! This has saved me so many times - the floss forms a strong thread and can save broken packs or shoes!
This is a travel must for me - I frequently choose to save money by hand washing my clothes (cheap and convenient.) You won't always have somewhere to hang your clothes. I prefer a travel clothesline that is "bungee" style - it is like having a spare bungee cord and comes in handy in all sorts of situations. Hint - if you need some privacy in a dorm bunk use your bungee cord to create curtain line and then throw your sarong over it! It can also be used to strap things to your pack.
I don't need to tell you that packing cubes are a good idea. I like this set - only one large cube - you don't need more than that! Keep one cube empty and rotate your dirty clothes into it, helps keep life organised when you're on the road.
Should I Buy Clothes in Asia?
Some travellers recommend getting clothes when you get to Southeast Asia. I have bought clothes in Southeast Asia but I generally do not recommend it. Most items are extremely poor quality, in particular look out for fabric dyes that will run and ruin the rest of your clothing. Almost everything I wore at markets got worn a few times and then eventually got thrown away.
It is possible to find quality brands in big cities like Bangkok or Singapore, but I found the prices to be a bit higher than what you can get if you shop around in the US or the UK. However, there are some great vintage markets but it can be hard to find western sizes.
I do recommend getting jewelry, scarves, sarongs and other fun accessories in markets across Southeast Asia. Shopping and bargaining is a fun part of the experience.
What do you think? Did I forget anything? Do you have any recommendations? Please share and help me improve my list! Also, if you have any questions please let me know, I'm happy to help :)