17 Must-Have SE Asia Packing List Items + What NOT to bring

What to Pack For Southeast Asia — And What to Leave At Home

Southeast Asia is an amazingly beautiful and diverse region of the world that will engage all of your senses. Whether you’re aboard a wooden longboat floating down the Mekong, lounging on an island with a drink in hand or trekking through the misty mountains among hilltribes, your experiences can vary depending on the day — and the weather. With that comes it’s own set of unique challenges just knowing how to pack for Southeast Asia.

Good news! We’ve come up with some Southeast Asia travel essentials to get you started. Top of the list are flexibility, open-mindedness, negotiation skills and gratitude — but fortunately those don’t take up any overhead room. So pack up and enjoy the ride.


1) Flip flops/water-resistant shoes – No matter where you are in Southeast Asia, your itinerary will likely include water — from the beaches in Thailand to Inle Lake in
Myanmar. Even landlocked Laos has the Mekong River and waterfalls aplenty. Pair that with the fact that there’s always a risk of a sudden downpour throughout the year and unpaved roads (that can get awfully muddy), you’ll want some shoes that are light, easy to slip on and even easier to clean off.
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2) Backpack – One of the beauties of Southeast Asia is the variety of treks and day trips available from wherever you’re stationed. Even if you’re not on the backpacking circuit, an easy to carry bag — one without wheels — makes life a lot easier. Going anywhere outside of the main cities, you’ll usually find dirt roads. Try dragging a rolling bag down one of those, and you’ll be happy for something you can throw on your back. A small daypack is best for shorter trips where you’ll need to bring a change of clothes, bug spray and sunscreen, among other essentials.
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3) Travel towel – Depending on your accommodations, you may find yourself in a BYOT (bring your own towel) situation. While most hotels and guesthouses will provide one, some hostels don’t. If you’re opting for a homestay — highly recommended — it’s even less likely. A small towel or sarong is also helpful for those days at the beach or an impromptu riverside picnic, as well.
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4) Unlocked cell phone (if you wish to stay connected) – There’s no better place to unplug than in Southeast Asia. With so much culture to absorb, you may not even miss those pesky emails or social media updates. But if you’re interested in staying connected, it’s easier to find a low cost sim card in cities, so keep a lookout for a kiosk at the airport or mall before venturing on to less populated portions of your itinerary. Some are one-time deals, while others work off a prepaid refill card. It’s helpful for getting directions, checking in for flights or using Google Translate.


5) Passport pouch – While I’ve never had an issue with safety during my travels in Southeast Asia, you can find yourself on the move a lot — from airplanes to trains, buses to tuk tuks. Your passport is one of the most important things to keep safe at all times. Wearing a concealed pouch that keeps it close, and hidden, gives you peace of mind. Additionally, I kept ATM cards and any large sums of money (after an ATM run) in it until you’re able to get to an accommodation with a safe.
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6) Rain jacket – While sudden downpours can happen all year long, they’re most likely to come during rainy season, obviously. Some countries have started billing it as the “Green Season”, and for good reason. It can still be a great time to visit. Crowds are smaller, prices are lower, and showers are usually limited to only a portion of the day (most of the time). Not to mention that it’s truly some of the greenest scenery you’ll ever see.
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7) Sunscreen and moisturizer – For any sort of cream, especially those for your face, it’s best to bring your own. Many of the moisturizers and sunscreens found in this region have whitening agents in them and can be hard to decipher if you can’t read the native language.
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8) Virtual Private Network (VPN) – If you’re planning to stay connected on your trip (see tip #4) and there are certain websites that you require access to, a VPN may be the best way to ensure you won’t get blocked. If you’re interested in streaming videos or live TV, many networks don’t have licenses outside of certain countries. If you’re planning to do work, again, keep in mind that some websites may be limited, while speech can be closely monitored as well (more for citizens than for tourists, though). I encountered this mostly in Laos and Vietnam.
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9) Hand wipes and packs of tissues – While it’s a hat toss whether you’ll encounter a western-style toilet or the more ubiquitous squat toilet, it’s even more of a chance whether you’ll actually have toilet paper. Keeping a pack of travel tissues on you at all times comes in handy. Additionally, even if that bathroom has a sink (again, not always the case) you may find a lack of soap. Hand wipes are a good go-to.
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10) International drivers license – Ah, the motorbike. A favorite — or not so favorite — mode of transportation in Southeast Asia. If you’re adventurous enough to strike out on your own, you can find routes that vary in length and difficulty. Many shops rent by the day (watch out for potential scams) and might say they require an International Drivers License before they turn over the keys. For the most part, that’s fine print — I’ve never actually seen it enforced. However, a particularly prickly police officer or some insurance policies will ask for proof. So best to be on the safe side.


11) Visa – As you finalize your itinerary, make sure you’re checking the visa requirements for the country with ample time before departure. Most countries in Southeast Asia have a Visa On Arrival, however Vietnam, for example, requires an approval letter for U.S. citizens ahead of time and recently changed their visa guidelines.


12) Over-the-counter medications (stomach, cold, pain) – While there are pharmacies throughout these countries, they won’t stock the same over the counter medications you’re used to. Not to mention the language barrier in determining what might be best. Notably, some of these pharmacies do carry medications that are considered prescription-only in western countries, but you can’t always trust that they aren’t counterfeit.
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13) Reuseable water bottle or LifeStraw – I was never without a bottle of water in hand, and another one (or two) in my bag at all times. You can’t drink the tap water in many Southeast Asian countries, but it’s easy to stop by the closest convenience store or stall. Many accommodations will have a water dispenser, as well, to fill a reusable bottle. If you’re really roughing it, a LifeStraw may be a lifesaver.
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14) Travel Insurance – Depending on the country and area in the region, the level of healthcare is hit or miss. Having a solid travel insurance plan that includes evacuation coverage is a must. In countries like Laos, you’ll likely need to be flown to Thailand for anything serious. Make sure your plan has a helpline where you’re able to call for guidance. And use it! Something that may seem routine back home may need extra care that’s above what’s available there.
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15) Electrolytes – You’ll be hardpressed to find someone who has traveled throughout Southeast Asia unscathed by stomach issues at least once. Traveller’s diarrhea or food poisoning can quickly become life threatening if you become dehydrated. Powdered electrolytes are good to keep on hand in case the need arises. Many travel health clinics suggest rice-based formulas.
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16) Power adaptors – Outlets vary throughout Southeast Asia, so if you have multiple countries on your itinerary, it’s best to go with an all-in-one type converter. Generally, outlets are 220 volts, but check on the specific country.
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17) Pocket knife – A foldable pocket knife with different attachments can be a useful tool. Whether you need a bottle opener (each country has their own beer, and there’s nothing quite like popping one open on the banks of the Mekong) or a simple scissor, they can be handy when you’re in a bind.
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Other packing list items to consider bringing to Southeast Asia


What clothes should I pack in Southeast Asia?


1) Layering clothes, including something warm, depending on season – You may be surprised to know that it can get rather chilly in parts of Southeast Asia. For most of the countries, the peak of high season is also fall/winter. There’s usually a cold snap or two where a sweater and jacket are definitely needed. So pack in layers, including at least one fleece or jacket.

2) Sarong (to be used as towel or cover for changing) – In lieu of a travel towel (previously mentioned) a sarong can come in handy as an alternative. If you’re in a more remote area or staying in a homestay, you may find yourself needing a cover up to change in a communal area or a quick-drying towel option.

3) Long pants and appropriate coverage – Temples top the list as many of the Southeast Asian must-see sights. Most have rules regarding what’s appropriate to wear. Some require men to wear long pants. Almost all require women’s legs and shoulders to be covered. If you’re planning to wear a tank top on a warm day, be sure to keep this in mind — a lightweight sharf or shawl will do.

4) Lightweight and breathable – For a region known for its beaches and tropical weather, it should be no surprise that you should expect heat and humidity at the peak of the day. Avoid getting overheated by wearing natural fabrics that breath. Sweating is a way of life here.

What not to bring:


1) 🚫 Valuables: While violent crimes are less widespread, petty theft and crimes of opportunity can be fairly common, particularly in cities and more tourist-centric areas. Best to leave non-essential valuables at home.

2) 🚫 Unneeded Books: Lightweight is the name of the game in this region. It’s likely that you’ll be on at least one LCC (low-cost carrier) flight during your trip if you’re country-hopping, and many have strict weight limits for bags. A good e-reader will save you the pounds when it comes to books.

3) 🚫 Hair dryer: In my experience, hairdryers, even if they say they’re under the voltage limit, tend to overheat. Stick with ones specifically set for the country’s outlets. Or better yet, air dry.

4) 🚫 Heavy coat: While it does get chilly is some parts of the region, it’s easier to pack layering clothes and throw over a fleece or jacket.

5) 🚫 Offensive or revealing clothing: Much of Southeast Asia remains a fairly modest culture. Make a good impression and leave distasteful items at home.

6) 🚫 A computer or bulky electronics: From both a safety and weight perspective, it’s not worth the risk.

FAQ


1. Can I drink the water?

It is not safe to drink the tap water in most countries in the region. Many accommodations may provide one or two bottles and/or a water dispenser. Buying bottles from the corner store is easy.

2. What type of accommodations are there?

Given the diverse options and landscapes — from beaches to rainforests to mountains — accommodation options can vary greatly. Cities likely have anywhere from top-notch hotels to simple guesthouses or hostels. Your island abode could be anything from a resort to a bungalow to a tent, if you wish. It’s always nice to seek out locally-run accommodations, or even homestays, if they are an option.

3. Do I need additional health insurance on top of my own?

Maybe. Make sure your insurance has an evacuation policy within it. It’s also a good idea to look into travel insurance in case of weather or sickness causes a change in plans.

4. Will my cell phone work?

Check to see if it’s unlocked. Usually you can easily get a local sim card. Most phones in recent years are already unlocked. Make sure to keep your old sim in a safe place.

5. Is it hot all the time? What’s the best time of year to go?

While it’s typically warm year-around during the peak of the daytime, some parts of the region can get a tad cool at night depending on the season, and most places don’t have heat. Rainy season varies a bit, but for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia it usually starts around May or June and runs through September.

6. Do people speak English?

In major cities, English is common. However, the further away you get, the less common it is. Make sure you print all travel information (hotels, flights, etc) prior to departure with addresses in the local language. Otherwise you may find yourself being driven in circles trying to find your destination, as I have on more than one occasion.

7. What vaccinations do I need?

This can depend on where you’ll be headed and what you’ll be doing. It’s best to check with a travel clinic prior to departure for advice.

8. Card or cash?

ATMs are fairly common in most of Southeast Asian cities. Outside of expenses like flights or hotels, I found it easiest to work mostly with cash withdrawn from an ATM (for the best exchange rate). Keep only a portion of it with you at a given time and the rest in a safe at your hotel or guesthouse. Be sure to call your bank prior to the trip to let them know. Otherwise they may mark international activity as suspicious and freeze your account.

9. When is the best time to go?

What do you want to do and see? Remember, there’s usually a distinct rainy season, which can shift depending on where exactly you are headed. Each country features their own unique festivals throughout the year — Buddhist New Year is a party of its own in countries like Laos and Thailand. There are pros and cons for any time, so just remember to pack accordingly.

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