If you’re accustomed to the backpacking world, what I’m about to say will certainly ring true for you. If you’re not, listen up… if ya slip up on this one, you’re sure to stick out like a sore thumb!
Ready? It’s a pack, not luggage. Affectionately call it as such. I’m guessing if you just made an audible, “mmmhmmm” sound, you know exactly what I’m talking about! It becomes your everything, as important to you as your right arm. It carries the most basic daily essentials, the few articles of clothing worn in all of your photos, and the little trinkets you’ve picked up along the way. It carries your journal stocked full of memories, and email addresses scribbled next to foreign names. Your identity, emergency stash of food, and your favorite book. You’ve held it on crowded buses, and worried for it during flights you couldn’t carry on. You’ve slept propped up against it a time or two, and maybe sewn on a few patches here and there. It has been your travel companion, and the thought of someone swiping it makes your palms sweat. So when you’re leaving home for months of travel, what’s significant enough to fill it? Of course that depends on where you’re headed.
For several weeks before heading to SE Asia I gathered information from many of my friends who had already made the trip, as well as scouring numerous internet sources on the topic. Over 95% of the time it was a hard “No” to jeans, sleeping bags, and any pack bigger than 40L. I did things a bit unconventionally, and broke two of those three standard rules, if only due to personal preference.
Not only is SE Asia hot, it’s also extremely humid, dusty, and for a woman certain aspects can be a bit difficult. From the absence of toilet paper and tampons, to the expectation of being fully covered in 100 degree weather, SE Asia can be a tricky place to backpack. Much to your benefit I can say, “Been there, done that!” and can provide you with a list of things that came in handy, items I wish I would have had, and one item I packed that I didn’t need at all but lugged around anyhow.
As the date of our departure crept ever closer, I became increasingly unsettled over the idea of living life out on the Banana Pancake Trail without my trusty lightweight sleeping bag (which I had become quite attached to after my five month stint across Europe). In an attempt to move past this emotional hurdle, I ordered a Cocoon Travel Sheet on Amazon. When I found it on my doorstep just a few days later, I was confident it would provide me with a certain piece of mind I had previously been missing. It didn’t. I laid awake that night thinking up scenarios where I’d prefer to have more than a sheet.
In the first scenario I was Couchsurfing (click to find out what this is) and my host had his AC cranked up to 11… brrr! Then I was spending a whole travel day on a rickety old train and needed cushion between the dirty window and my head as it took another hard thud against the pane. In another made up scene, I missed the very last bus and as darkness fell, I stumbled upon a bench in a public park. We’ve all been there, have we not?
So the next morning when I brought this conundrum of mine up to Hillary for the umpteenth time, she exclaimed, “Just take it then! If you’ll be more comfortable, then just take it.” And as if I needed the seal of approval from someone other than myself, I decided right then and there that I would indeed bring my Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 to SE Asia, regardless of EVERYTHING I had read up until that point. Even if it turned out to be too hot to climb inside of most nights, knowing I’d have that extra padding handy provided a certain familiar comfort.
Second rule I broke: My Osprey Viva 50L. Although she looks like a beast sitting next to Hillary’s Osprey Kyte 46L, she offered the space I needed to bring that little extra comfort from home. For all intents and purposes, a 40L pack would suffice.
Now the jeans were another story. I didn’t bring them, nor did I bring any other outfit from home. I’m wore capris and a v-neck tee on the flight and bought new apparel upon arrival. I wouldn’t generally do this, but with the tropical climate and the conservative nature of the area, I felt it the best option. Not only is clothing cheap in Asia, but buying locally will undoubtedly slim down the chances of looking like a tourist.
In the past, I have tried the “be prepared for everything” strategy. I ended up leaving my favorite hair straightener, several shirts, my set of rechargeable batteries (complete with charger), and some board shorts at the height of the Pyrenees Mountains. Board shorts in the mountains? Yeah, exactly what I was thinking then too. But I had thought bringing them was just a brilliant idea, since a few weeks later I’d be swimming in the Almalfi coast. Tip? If board shorts are that important to you, buy them there. Better yet? Go without. Don’t climb mountains with unnecessary weight for impractical reasons. Because that’s just silly.
So, what do you pack? Being a woman in a SE Asian country you’re absolutely going to want a scarf, shawl, or wrap of some kind. Although there are some touristy areas that are more lenient with western culture, I’d list it right up there next to my backpack on the crucial-to-have items list. Choose something versatile in the way of color and design, as you will be using this article of clothing on almost a daily basis and in several different ways. Some sites such as Mosques and Temples expect a woman’s head and hair to be completely covered, others require only the shoulders remain unseen, still there are times only ankles and feet can be visible. A wrap can remedy any of these potential issues and also comes quite handy as a pillow on long bus rides or as a cover up from peering eyes on overnight trains (a MUST in India).
You’ll also want some lightweight pants to keep you cool as well as completely covered during the heat of the day. Since I did lots of researching before leaving on my trip, I knew that I wanted to purchase what the locals call “Elephant Pants,” which are a perfect fully-covered-but-somehow-still-breezy option. And inexpensive, as haggling is part of every day life in many SE Asian countries (see my post on Haggling here). So acquiring a few pair of these became top priority once my plane landed as the only bottoms I had were the ones I was wearing – a pair of grey comfy work-out Nike capris.
My packing list has undergone some serious trimming down since my earlier days. I have included it here for my SE Asia trip, however there are a few things that were in Hillary’s pack that otherwise would have been in mine (if I were traveling alone). These include the GoPro selfie stick, extra razor heads, SteriPen, and Kindle. You’ll also see that I packed two pair of flip flops, generally I would say just pack one and buy another if yours fall apart or get stolen. Though in my case (with my long and narrow size 10’s) I figured it would be more of a hassle than it’s worth, trying to find my size in a country where the average shoe size for a woman is between a 5 and 6. No thanks!
My packing list
Rucksack for day trips
Cannon camera w/ extra lenses
Black Diamond headlamp
Light rain jacket
3 pair of panties
1 pair of socks
2 pair of flip flops
1 pair of converse
Cocoon travel sheet
Travel size shampoo/conditioner
Personal hygienic supplies (foundation, mascara, tweezers, clippers, and a small pack of Q-tips)
Passport/Drivers License/International Drivers License, copies and other documents
Journal and pen
Bike chain and lock
I did pretty well only packing the things that I knew I would need, and only packing the bare minimum. Depending on the length of your trip, keep in mind that you will be able to buy the things you run out of along the way. Possibly not the brand you might prefer back home, but you’ll be able to track down some razors, shampoo and conditioner, or some batteries when you need them.
As for this particular backpacking trip, I knew I’d be gone for 6 months which meant I would need an ample amount of tampons and there was no way I was going to pack 6 months worth and lug them around. So, I relied on the general rule of thumb I’d lived by before, “You can always buy along the way.”
Except for the fact that I was unaware in SE Asia using tampons isn’t a culturally acceptable practice, which means I learned the hard way that they aren’t a common retail item. In this case I would recommend the Diva Cup which is easy to use, decently priced and most importantly, reusable.
What you absolutely won’t need: A sleeping bag.
After weighing the pro’s and con’s I still packed mine, I’m extremely attached to it. It’s definitely my security blanket of sorts and even though I only used it a handful of times, I was extremely happy I brought it. This was a personal preference, so unless you’re super clingy with your sleeping bag – don’t feel the need to pack it. You won’t need it in this particular climate, and air conditioning or “Air-Con,” will 9 times out of 10 not be a part of your daily (or nightly) life. Travel sheets will do ya just fine!
I think we can all agree that there are scores of guidelines regarding packing for SE Asia, and for any other climate, country, and continent. Knowing those guidelines can give some much needed insight on the do’s and don’ts of packing lists specific to the region you are visiting. With that said, be sure to keep your own personal preference in mind when you’re deciding what to stuff in your pack.
Only you can know which items, perhaps trivial or nonessential to someone else, could make your time abroad more enjoyable. For a girl I met in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, it was her ratty old converse shoes. For an old man from Margate, who I met in Spain and affectionately referred to as “Grandpa England,” it was a green, 3 inch plastic man who accompanied him on all of his adventures. He named the toy “Greeny 2” and tied him to the back of his pack where he consistently photobombed many of our selfies. Whatever it is for you, don’t deprive yourself just because it’s not on someone else’s list.
Been here? Headed here? Would love to hear from you! Leave a comment in the section below!
For a newbie to traveling like me, I always wonder what I will need to take. I usually look at climate and the duration and try to plan accordingly, but it never manages to work out the way I would like it to. The detailed list you provided above is really helpful.
I did have a question though. As far as female necessities go, is it smarter to pack a diva cup (thinking about purchasing) or are tampons okay? Or does it depend on the duration of the trip?
As always, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.
Great questions! That’s solely dependent on your preference. I hadn’t yet traveled anywhere that I couldn’t get my hands on a box of tampons until I spent a lengthy amount of time in SE Asia. Westerners who live there generally buy them in bulk on Amazon and have them shipped to their homes. It’s strictly a culture issue, so you won’t have this problem in any of the westernized areas of the world! As for me personally, I always bring tampons, as I prefer them to the Diva Cup – for the mere aspect of familiarity I suppose. I take… Read more »