Updated on January 21, 2020 by Asher Fergusson
What should I bring on my Southeast Asia trip?
A lot of people were asking me what to wear in Southeast Asia, and what else to pack for this region. I’ve also included a list of what NOT to bring, plus answers to common FAQs.
Be sure to also take your flexibility, open-mindedness, negotiation skills, and gratitude — fortunately those don’t use up any overhead room. So pack those bags and prepare for an incredible adventure!
What to Pack for SE Asia – 17 Essentials
9) Virtual Private Network (VPN) – If you’re planning to stay connected on your trip then a good VPN is essential to ensure you won’t get blocked from censored websites. Laos and Vietnam are particularly bad while Thailand and Cambodia can also be quite restricted. Another HUGELY beneficial aspect of VPNs is that they add an extra layer of encryption security between you and hackers. Trust me, you don’t want to get your credit card information stolen while traveling like I did! NordVPN is both reliable and very affordable – they come highly recommended by experienced travelers, including myself!
Other SE Asia packing list items to consider
Slip-on Mesh Water Shoes: Women’s and Men’s
Leave-In Hair Conditioner
Steripod toothbrush cover
Motion Sickness Wrist Bands
Small travel sewing kit
Phone/camera flotation straps
Numbers to local
consulates or embassies
Over-the-counter medications (stomach, cold, pain)
What to wear in Southeast Asia
It’s also crucial to remember that in a tropical environment like that of Southeast Asia, it’s humid. Humidity can really take a toll on you if you’re not wearing breathable fabrics!
With a few exceptions (like in Bangkok), women throughout Southeast Asia typically dress fairly conservatively. While you’ll see tourists wearing short-shorts and crop tops almost anywhere, revealing clothing really isn’t culturally appropriate in most parts of Southeast Asia. In general, short-sleeved and even sleeveless tops are perfectly fine, but opt for styles that provide more coverage. Similarly, shorts should be on the longer side, and look for skirts and dresses that extend well past mid-thigh. In the most conservative areas, particularly in predominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, women should keep their shoulders, their thighs, and their knees covered.
You may also be surprised to learn that locals will dress more nicely than you expect, so wearing safari gear or clothing that looks like pajamas will make you look under-dressed. Flip-flops are most travelers’ top choice of footwear for Southeast Asia, and they’ll be handy in many situations, but make sure you have some shoes that are comfortable for walking. Depending on what you have planned, you may also need some nice flats, a pair of sturdy sandals or water shoes, or some good hiking shoes or boots.
Most men traveling to Southeast Asia won’t have much trouble meeting the expectations for modesty, but it’s still respectful to avoid clothing that’s overly casual. Local men in most parts of the region dress more formally than the average tourist, so skip the elephant pants and beer singlets if you want to fit in.
Because most of Southeast Asia is hot and humid all year, lightweight fabrics will be most comfortable, so look for clothes made from fabrics like wool, linen, or light cotton blends. For men, T-shirts, lightweight polo shirts, short-sleeved button-downs, nice-looking shorts, and lightweight pants are all good options for a Southeast Asia wardrobe. You’ll probably want a pair of flip-flops (has anyone ever visited this region without bringing flip-flops?), but be sure you also have shoes that are comfortable for walking around in. You’ll also want a pair of nicer shoes if you have serious nightlife plans, and you may need some water shoes or hiking boots, depending on what you plan to do during your trip.
Because Southeast Asia is so large and diverse, different areas have different seasons and weather patterns. Rainy season comes in the summer or fall months in many parts of the region, but not all. To decide on your clothing for Southeast Asia, use this section as a guide, but be sure to check on the weather and seasons for the specific places you plan to visit.
SPRING – March, April, May:
In most parts of Southeast Asia, late spring is actually the hottest time of year – even hotter than summer. Temperatures regularly climb over 100°F (30°C), and with the intense humidity, the heat index is even higher than that. Spring is also dry season across the most of the region (though rains in some places start in May).
This is the only time of year that you probably won’t have much need for rain gear, but it doesn’t hurt to bring a packable rain jacket just in case. Temperatures average around 75°F to 80°F (24°C to 27°C).
SUMMER – June, July, August:
The summer months are also extremely hot and humid in most of Southeast Asia, and 100°F (38°C) days are still common. However, this is also rainy season in many parts of the region.
Again, bring lightweight, breathable clothing, and don’t cover up more than you need to. Capris, shorts, dresses, and short-sleeved or sleeveless shirts will be most comfortable. If you’re visiting places that get monsoon rains during the summer, make sure to pack a rain jacket, a sturdy travel umbrella, and some shoes that have good traction and dry quickly. Temperatures average around 75°F to 85°F (24°C to 29°C).
FALL – September, October, November:
By late-fall, parts of northern Vietnam and northern Laos are starting to get chilly, while temperatures in the rest of the region usually only drop off a few degrees from the spring and summer highs. The fall months are also rainy in many areas, so check on the specific places you plan to visit.
If your destinations experience rain in the fall, bring an umbrella and a rain jacket, and pack at least one pair of shoes that are sturdy and dry quickly. Temperatures average around 70°F to 77°F (21°C to 25°C).
WINTER – December, January, February:
For the parts of Southeast Asia that actually get cold, particularly northern Vietnam and northern Laos, this is when it happens. It remains hot and humid in most other areas of the region, but temperatures drop a little bit compared to other parts of the year.
If you’re visiting northern Laos or especially northern Vietnam in the winter, you can forget most of the normal rules for what to wear in Southeast Asia. For once, warmer clothes are essential. Plan to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and they don’t need to be made from lightweight fabrics. Instead, bring heavier pants (such as jeans), as well as sweaters, a warm jacket, and closed-toed shoes. But for other destinations, even in the winter, the most you’ll need is a light jacket or scarf. Temperatures average around 60°F to 70°F (16°C to 21°C).
Either way, it’s important to cover up when you’re away from the beach. Tourists walk through town in just their swimsuits nearly everywhere, but it really goes against social norms – I’ve even seen signs in Thailand telling people not to wear their swimsuits off the beach. Put at least a shirt or cover-up over your swimsuit if you’re hanging out near the coast, and bring regular clothes to wear into town. Unless you’re planning to do an activity like kayaking, where sturdy sandals or water shoes are more comfortable, a pair of flip-flops is usually the best beach footwear for Southeast Asia.
Temples – Whether they’re big or small, old or new, rural or urban, famous or unknown, temples are the one thing you’ll find almost everywhere in Southeast Asia (except the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country). For most tourists, visiting temples is one of the highlights of their trip. But temples are sacred places, so appropriate dress is more important there than anywhere else. Most temples have dress codes, and it’s common for inappropriately-dressed visitors to be refused entry (or required to buy or rent an extra garment to cover up with). Temple dress codes apply to both men and women and usually require keeping your shoulders, knees, midriff, and cleavage covered; shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed.
Male visitors should wear pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and women can wear a short-sleeved top with either capris, pants, or a calf-length skirt (or dress). At most temples (but not the most strict ones), a scarf or shawl worn over a tank top is sufficient. If you’re visiting a big complex like Angkor Wat or just hitting several temples in one day, you’ll end up spending a lot of time on your feet, so comfortable walking shoes are essential. More modern temples (other than those that are in ruins) require visitors to remove their shoes before entering, so something you can slip on and off will make things easier. Many cities in Southeast Asia also have mosques that are open to visitors, and the same clothing rules generally apply.
Nightlife – Nightlife in Southeast Asia ranges from upscale clubs in downtown Singapore to riverside shacks in rural Laos and everything in between. At most bars and restaurants frequented by tourists, especially those that cater to backpackers, you don’t need to wear anything special. However, in the popular areas of major cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, many of the nicer clubs and restaurants have strict dress codes, which almost always prohibit any kind of open-toed shoes. At these places, local people and expats will be dressed to impress, so you should dress the way you would for a big night out in a U.S. city. Even spots that don’t have an official dress code might turn you away if you’re too underdressed, or you may find that you get terrible service.
Trekking – Almost every country in Southeast Asia has opportunities for trekking, but the conditions vary dramatically. No matter where you plan to trek, though, the right gear is essential for staying comfortable and safe. If you’ll be trekking in northern Laos or northern Vietnam (including the trekking capital of Sapa) during the winter or climbing to a high elevation, the cold temperatures might surprise you. Warm clothes and pieces you can easily layer will be critical. A good rule of thumb is to wear a sweat-wicking base layer (like a wool t-shirt), an insulating mid-layer (like a fleece jacket), and a waterproof outer layer (a rain jacket or outer shell), along with long underwear or leggings and water-resistant hiking pants.
Don’t forget a hat and gloves as well. For other treks, including the popular hill-tribe treks in northern Thailand, lightweight clothes will be most comfortable. Since most treks pass through rural villages, dressing modestly is especially important, and covering up will protect you from the brush, bugs, and sun anyway. You’ll also need the right footwear, which will depend on how difficult your trek is and how much you’ll be carrying. If you’re doing a strenuous, multi-day trip or carrying a heavy pack, hiking boots will protect your ankles and keep you most comfortable. For shorter or less demanding treks, hiking shoes with good traction with probably be sufficient. If you’ll be trekking in cold weather, you’ll need waterproof shoes or boots to stay warm. Otherwise, ventilated footwear is more comfortable in tropical climates because it dries out much faster.
What NOT to bring to SE Asia
When it comes to clothes for Southeast Asia, there are a few things you’re generally better off avoiding: outfits that are too revealing or too casual, fabrics that aren’t lightweight, and cold-weather clothing. For women, things like short-shorts, miniskirts, crop tops, and low-cut shirts are only appropriate in a few situations, namely for nightlife in places like Bangkok and Singapore. And items that are overly casual, such as pajama pants and singlets, are best saved for wearing inside your hostel.
Because of the tropical climate in most of Southeast Asia, clothes made out of heavier fabrics, including denim, will be uncomfortable, so don’t plan on wearing jeans. Similarly (outside of northern Laos and northern Vietnam in the winter), you probably won’t have a need for any cold-weather gear, like sweaters, coats, and gloves. Lastly, most female visitors to Southeast Asia have little reason to wear high heels or expensive jewelry, so those items can probably be left at home.
FAQs For Southeast Asia Travel
1. Is the water safe to drink in Southeast Asia?
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, but it’s even easier to bring your own water bottle with built-in filter and/or a LifeStraw. This will help you ensure that you’re never without clean, drinkable water.
2. What are accommodations like?
Cities will 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?
Maybe. Make sure your insurance has an evacuation policy within it – if it doesn’t, seek additional travel insurance for your trip, as many places in SE Asia don’t have adequate local medical treatment centers for serious conditions. It’s also a good idea to look into travel insurance in case weather or sickness causes a sudden (and potentially expensive) change in plans.
4. Will my cell phone work in Southeast Asia?
Check to see if it’s unlocked. Usually you can easily get a local SIM card to use with an unlocked phone. Most phones in recent years are already unlocked, but it’s always a good idea to check well in advance of your trip in case you need to make other arrangements for keeping in touch. If you do find that your phone is unlocked and you plan to switch to a local SIM card, make sure to keep your old SIM in a safe place so that you’re not stuck having to replace it when you get back to the States.
5.What’s the best time of year to visit?
6. Do people speak English?
In major Asian cities, English is common. However, the farther 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 before I go to SE Asia?
8. Should I use ATM card(s) or cash in Southeast Asia?
ATMs are fairly common in most Southeast Asian cities. Outside of expenses like flights or hotels, I found it easiest to work mostly with
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Author: Katie Malloy
Katie Malloy, a freelance content creator, recently returned to the U.S. after living in Luang Prabang, Laos, where she was a marketing manager for a social enterprise. She spent her free time watching life along the Mekong River and seeing the region. A lifelong traveler, she looks forward to knocking her final continent, Antarctica, off the list one day. Katie is happy to be home in North Carolina, but she does miss the sights and sounds of Southeast Asia, even the 4 a.m. wake-up call of Buddhist monks drumming at the nearby temple.