Backpacking Asia: The Ultimate Packing List

So  you’ve discovered this post amongst the million others. No doubt you’re in search of a magic answer to the Gen-X-old question: “WHAT THE HELIUM DO I PACK FOR MY BACKPACKING TRIP AROUND SOUTHEAST ASIA??!!!“. Never fear, and don’t fret. I have the tried and tested answer to many of your packing conundrums, plus some. No, you don’t have to go out and buy a new  Lululemon wardrobe, or those hideous velcro sandal things. Surprisingly, the most important things to pack are not, in fact, clothing items.  Read on to find out why.

1. The single most important thing you need is, a small, well designed backpack

I am a 5’4″ female with a small frame and my 60 Litre backpack is the absolute LARGEST you would want to carry. Get smaller than this. I wish I had. This bag is going to be your life for the next (insert number here) month/s and it is going to determine how annoyed and angry and pissy you get every time you travel to a new place. Remember, this is Asia folks, most people survive here with one pair of flip flops most of their lives.


So, while we are still on the topic of backpacks, lets discuss design. There are 100,000,000,000 different backpacks out there (okay I may be exaggerating) and an equal number of brands.

But there are just two important factors when buying a backpack.

You need to be able to access the contents of your backpack, without completely unpacking and;

It must be strong.

This backpack is an investment into your travel future. Spend wisely. Forget colours; they’re unimportant (unless to distinguish if it is indeed your bag you’re pulling off the airport luggage conveyor), this pack is probably going to get covered in dust and mud anyway.

Standard travel pack requirements:

  • All zips must be strong and thick. They also must have the option to be locked together.
  • There should be two metal rods behind the main straps, which are fully adjustable.
  • It should zip out fully, so you can pack it whilst it is lying down, top loading drawstring backpacks are fist-clenchingly frustrating, as you have limited access to your things and end up having to take everything out just to find one pair of socks. Top loaders also are difficult to lock.

Preferable features:

  • Laundry bag
  • ‘Zip Away’ straps, which can be hidden or zipped away so they don’t get caught and tangled as checked in baggage.
  • Rain cover


An example of a backpack that zips out for easy access to any of your possessions

2. A smart, well thought out wardrobe 

(NOT an extensive collection of garments fit for a fashion show, shoes included). For ladies only

Have you ever seen a girl wearing a revealing evening dress in winter without tights, and the mere sight of her not only makes you feel colder, but just makes you want to laugh? That’s what you’re gonna look like if you insist taking a pair of heels backpacking; “Just in case we go out and want to look nice one night”.

What you really need:

  • Tops: And lots of them, I would say 5-7 is adequate (remember that you can buy simple cheap cotton vest/singlet tops and T-shirts of any color, almost everywhere in Asia). I suggest cotton, or cotton blends. Sporty sweat-wicking tops are also a great investment, but they are expensive, and in Asia nothing lasts long. Wear synthetics at your peril, sweat rash is oh so sexy! Another note to remember ladies, unless you want to be stared and or laughed at once you head out of town, cleavage revealing tops are not a good idea. You will find that you really can’t beat a good quality, modest, plain T-shirt of your most flattering color. This will also help you in your constant battle with sunburn. A nice top for going out, of good quality, is recommended too.
  • Bottoms:You need to feel comfortable in whatever it is you pack, otherwise you will have a pack full of items that look good, but you don’t ever wear, and then stuck with a few comfortable things that are falling to pieces through over-use.  Shorts are my favourite. Think about moto rides, getting out of Tuk-Tuks, elephant rides, walking around in 80%  humidity.. skirts are just not a good idea unless you want to get thigh rash, which you are then constantly flashing to everyone. You will wash bottoms less than tops so fewer are needed. You could add in a skort if desperate, but they tend to be uncomfortable (I have a Nike one that is bulky and tight and never sits right).
  • Dresses: For beaches, spa days, activity-light days, and for going out. Cotton blend dresses are best as they crinkle less and are lightweight. Pretty and modest summer dresses work well. You don’t need more than 2-3 faves.
  • A lightweight rainjacket with hood: You can get waterproof rainjackets that zip and have pockets, but are almost as lightweight as a piece of plastic. They easily can fit into a pocket or small bag just in case.
  • One hoodie, one pair of durable pants, two pairs of socks & lots of underwear: One hoodie, which you will virtually never wear (except for air-conditioned busses) will be good for warmth, and can also be used as a pillow. Durable pants, like a sports pant, or hiking pant are usually warm and fast drying, as well as being long-lasting and comfortable. You will virtually never wear socks. Two pairs is all you need. Always make sure underwear is good quality and comfortable. A racerback croptop or sportsbra is great for activity days.
  • THREE PAIRS OF SHOES, PREFERABLY TWO: The first pair you need are flip flops or durable sandals. Cute gladiators and other strappy things will fall apart. Trust me, with all that humidity and walking, the glue becomes unstuck. I’m talking good quality leather sandals that are sewn, or something akin to a Birkenstock. I am a Birkenstock fanatic, and live in them while travelling. Your feet are your most important appendages when travelling. Care must be taken when selecting footwear. Second, you need a pair of good quality walking/hiking/running shoes. They don’t need to be full on boots unless you are hiking up a mountain or through jungle. The third pair is up to you. A pair of flats that go well with your dresses is nice to have, if you have the space and energy to carry them around.
  • Bathing suits/s and PJ’s: Staying in hostels requires you to have a pair of PJ’s; T-shirt-short combo’s are best for coverage. Take as many bikinis as you want. they’re tiny and get lots of use.
  • Decent sunglasses: Cheap sunglasses break easily and don’t protect your eyes.
  • Stuff to buy when you arrive: Hat, headband/s, light scarves, comfy travel baggy pants, cheap sunglasses, sarong.
  • Small bag to take out with you at night.
A hanging toiletry bag is extremely useful.

3. Toiletries: and a bit of make-up and first-aid.

I’m not going to beat around the bush, there’s no excuse for not showering and being well-groomed. It’s not difficult with the right kit. A word of caution: Small bottles are best, you’re toiletries can be replaced easily and inexpensively, and taking bigger bottles means ALOT more weight in your pack. 

Basic toiletries:

  • Shampoo and Conditioner (around 200ml is the best size, remember, when you get to a hotel with S&C provided, you can cheekily refill them)
  • A multipurpose body wash in a bottle. I don’t recommend a bar of soap. They require a bag/box and often end up sodden and speckled in dirt and remnants from the hostel bathroom floor.
  • An exfoliation glove (smaller than a loofah) and quality razor with head refills.
  • A heavy moisturizer for your body such as baby oil or coconut oil. Your body gets drrryyy.
  • Face wash and a light moisturizer, or facial wipes
  • Sunscreen (its expensive, and often ‘whitening’ in Asia)
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste.
  • Tampons: you can buy pads everywhere though.
  • Small hairbrush

A word on makeup:

  • Often, because of the humidity, the dust, constant dips in water, wiping spicy soups of your face and the need to apply sunscreen constantly, most girls just give up on trying to put on make-up at all. Usually, at home, I wear makeup. In the past four months of travelling I think I have worn makeup about five times. It’s a pointless enterprise ladies.
  • I know you can’t leave home without it, so here are my suggestions: A mineral powder foundation that adjusts to your skin tone (you’re most likely going to tan). A decent mascara and eyeliner which don’t run. A blush if you must, along with a good all-purpose brush. One eyeshadow in a neutral tone that will go with everything. A compact mirror.

That’s it. No you don’t need a hair straightener (you’ll piss off other travellers trying to use the electricity sockets to charge useful items such as a camera/laptop). No eyelash curlers, bronzers, fake tan (uh.. you can get a real one) face primer etc etc etc. Get out of the bathroom and onto the beach!


  • HAND SANITISER: use and apply after every visit to the squatter and before every meal. You get stomach bugs from your hands, not your food or from brushing your teeth with local water.
  • Pain killers, your choice.
  • Iodine tablets or something that stops you from going to the bathroom every five minutes.
  • Antihistamines (to help with rashes, bed bug bites, mosquito bites etc)
  • Anti-bacterial cream and anti fungal-cream.
  • Band-Aids or blister pads.
  • Alcohol wipes and a pressure bandage (cuts, rolled ankles, snake bite, drunken injuries).
  • Tweezers and a small nail clipper with file attached. Keep those nails short for sanitary reasons.
  • Mosquito repellant. Buy it when you arrive, the local stuff is better and has deet.

A lot of you will be asking about antimalarial. It’s a completely personal thing and cannot advise whether you should or you shouldn’t take them. All I can say is that they are usually a broad spectrum antibiotic, such as Doxycycline, which you need to take religiously, or they don’t work. It is very unhealthy to take antibiotics for a long time and they make you more susceptible to sunburn. In most places in Asia you just don’t need them. I have never taken them, and I have travelled to South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The thing you really should be worried about is Dengue Fever. You are much more likely to catch Dengue, and the only protection from it is a mosquito net and repellant.

4. Essential travel accessories that you cannot leave home without:

  • A lightweight daypack (You will use this everyday for activities, choose carefully)
  • Medical/Travel insurance; accidents do happen. Don’t become a scary travel story. I recommend World Nomads. Expensive but good. Will cover you if you are not beginning your journey in your home country.
  • A headtorch
  • Earplugs; lots of them. The cheap orange ones are fine.
  • Facemask for sleeping on night-busses
  • Guidebook
  • Passport cover and waterproof bag for travel documents (insurance certificate, extra passport sized photos, photocopy of your passport)

5. Travel gadgets that make your trip twice as enjoyable: 

Remember any device you take, you  have to carry around its charger too. 

  • Kindle: Weighs nothing and lasts for over a month. No brainer if you’re a reader. The Kindle Paperwhite is particularly good as it has a backlight, so it can be read anywhere from a tent to a fancy hotel in the middle of a power outage.
  • MP3 and small earbud headphones.
  • Device in which you can connect to Wifi (even Burma has Wifi!), a phone or tablet is best. Really think deeply before taking a bulky laptop. A laptop in really only needed for bloggers (who get paid for writing), photographers who wish to edit their photos, or people who legitimately work online. All social networking, movie watching, email sending and net surfing can be done on a smaller device. If you must take one, think about a Netbook or Macbook Air.
  • Camera (For more information about Travel Photography, read my post here).
  • Journal for memories.

And that’s it! That if absolutely everything you need! If you feel I have missed something out, please comment below. I am happy and open to taking suggestions. -Belle


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