Packing Lists,  Asia,  Destinations

What to pack for Southeast Asia | Unpack with me

I recently returned from 10 months of travel, most of it in Southeast Asia. Here’s what I came back with– note, NOT what I started out with!– in my 27l backpack.

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How I chose my backpack

My first big trip, which was 8 months mostly in Western Europe, I took a carry on size suitcase, a backpack, and a purse. While I liked having the space for extra clothes, leftover kitchen stuff and a small collection of books, I really didn’t want to drag all of that around Asia.

I knew I’d be taking lots of buses and trains, and I wanted to keep my luggage with me as much as possible (I’m terrified of luggage thieves). Budget airlines, especially in Asia, tend to charge for large bags as well. That meant I needed to stay as small as possible!

I’d previously done lots of research on carry on size bags, and there’s some very good ones that I’ve seen used by backpackers all over the world. However, I went with a small 27l backpack that I previously used as a daypack! Since I didn’t have to buy anything new, this worked out well for me.

What’s in my backpack

Video Tour

I filmed a video showing off what came back in my bag, minus the souvenirs (that’s another video).

If you prefer text, continue reading below:

Luggage

  • North Face Women’s Borealis Backpack
    • I’ve had this for two years– it was my daypack in 2022 when I traveled around Western Europe. As a main travel backpack it’s actually pretty solid! You can fit a good amount into it, and I like that it has a padded laptop compartment separate from the main compartment. It never got stained, the airflow on the back padding worked well, and the shoulder straps are pretty good, too.
    • Downsides: even though I had relatively few things, my bag still weighed close to 10kg (or more!) most days. Without a padded waistband, I found carrying this bag to be painful after about 40 minutes. Also, because it’s top-loading it took more finagling to get everything packed. And if I needed something at the bottom of the bag? Yeah, it’s staying there or I’m taking everything out to get it.
  • Packing cubes x2 (Travelon)
    • Surprisingly sturdy! I got bright blue ones so I could see them easily in a dark hostel room. The larger one was also good for an emergency laptop lap desk if I wanted to do some blogging in bed.
  • Purse (PacSafe CitySafe crossbody)
    • Never used the anti-theft features on the zippers, tbh, and I never got into a purse-snatching/purse slicing situation so the mesh anti-slash bits were fairly useless, too. I liked the organization, including the side pockets for waterbottle and umbrella, and the wide strap made it more comfortable to carry.
    • Downsides: the anti-slash mesh and the rest of the material made this purse very heavy, at nearly 1lb weight while empty. My shoulder definitely hurt after a long day of touring.
  • Shoe bag (Travelon?)
    • Just for keeping my shower sandals separate from the rest of my stuff.
  • Laundry net bag (similar)
    • I use this as a dirty laundry bag, as well as a “keep socks and underwear contained so they don’t get lost in the washing machine” bag. The dirty laundry gets stuffed to the bottom of my backpack and when it’s full I know it’s time to get to a laundromat.
  • Tote bag (from Bali)
    • Endlessly useful. Carry groceries, laptop to a cafe, toiletries to a hostel bathroom, dirty laundry, etc.
  • Various small bags (picked up on travels)
    • These make fun souvenirs!

Clothing

It helps to keep a simple color palette. I love purple and blue, so I mostly had that mixed with gray, black, and white.

Tops

  • Dress (picked up in Thailand)
    • I used this exclusively as a nightgown but ideally it’d get double duty as a day dres as well.
  • Long-sleeve shirt (Columbia) (similar)
    • The particular style I had was very sweaty and didn’t breathe at all, not great for SEA. I’d still recommend a Columbia shirt, but maybe a lighter weave one like this one instead.
  • Sleeveless shirt (thrifted in Kuala Lumpur)
  • Cotton t-shirt (Uniqlo)
    • Cotton shirts deteriorate quickly in the hot, sweaty weather, especially if you’re washing them every week or more. This one lasted five months and I’m surprised it made it, honestly.
  • “Quick dry” t-shirts x3 (Uniqlo Airism)
    • These last a bit longer than cotton shirts. They still get stinky after a day in the heat, but the sweat dries quickly rather than sticking around. If you handwash them, they’ll dry in half a day on a laundry line.

Bottoms

  • Pants x2 (Columbia (similar), random thrifted pair from Kuala Lumpur (similar))
    • The Columbia pants are pretty great actually; I fell several times while hiking and they didn’t rip or get too stained. One of the ** on the waistband tie fell off, but otherwise they held up well.
  • Skirt (picked up in Thailand)
    • Picking up a new shirt, skirt, pants, whatever on your travels is so fun! And a great way to refresh your wardrobe while on the road. This skirt is just a light cotton maxi that I got from a local market. Here’s something similar on Amazon.

Underthings

  • Cotton socks x1
    • I started with more, but eventually I only had one pair. Since I only wore sandals for half the year, this worked out okay.
  • Underwear x6
    • This year I tried out some Hanes “microfiber” underwear. They’re actually not a bad choice: the crotch area feels like cotton and the rest is thinner polyester, so they dry a lot faster than cotton underwear and feel more comfortable than all-thin polyester underwear. They also pack down smaller than regular cotton underwear.
  • Missing: bras! Mine all disintegrated because they were basic cotton bralettes (and already pretty old). Next time I’m going with merino wool bras that’ll hopefully hold up a bit better.
Topper, Uniqlo Airism shirt, Columbia pants, Teva sandals, Sunday Afternoons hat, Pacsafe purse.

Outerwear

  • Buff (neck gaiter) and Buff headband
    • Highly recommend getting a Buff. I use it as a thin scarf, as a dust mask (great for Ha Giang Loop motorbike tours), an eye mask, etc. I have the UV kind which is polyester, but there’s also a merino wool version that looks nice.
  • Hat (Sunday Afternoons)
    • Second year using this; I have the Vineyard Hat style which is made from fabric and thus more durable than straw. GREAT hat, held up well in wind and rain, and it rolls up to be stashed in a side pocket if needed.
  • Topper (picked up in Laos)
  • Merino wool sweater (Uniqlo)
  • Raincoat (Eddie Bauer Girl on the Go Trench)
    • I really like this raincoat but it’s a bit too hot for SEA. Rain mostly makes things humid and a waterproof raincoat just makes me sweaty in that sort of weather. Works well as a thin jacket if needed, though, which I definitely needed on Mt. Bromo and certain places in Vietnam, like on the Ha Giang loop or in Da Lat.
    • It fits closer to your body than other coats, so size up if you’re going to wear anything thicker than a fleece jacket under it.
  • Scarf (free from hostel left-behinds)
  • UPF sleeves x2 (Uniqlo) (similar)
  • Sunglasses + case

Shoes

  • Flip flops (Crocs)
    • Shower shoes and “lounge around the hostel” shoes. It’s nice to have a pair that just slips on rather than having to do straps or shoelaces all the time.
  • Sandals (Teva Hurricane)
    • One of my favorite purchases this year! I was never a sandals person and hadn’t even worn any for like five years. But these really do make SEA slightly more comfortable to walk around in.
    • Downsides: The straps give me blisters when they’re wet, and the soles sometimes slipped on certain wet surfaces.
Pile of backpacks in a hostel after checkout. Mine’s the little one to the far left.

Technology

  • Converter plugs (Travelon) (similar)
  • iPhone + USB cable, USB C cable + charging block
  • Kindle Oasis + battery case + cable
    • I ADORE my Kindle Oasis and have had it for something like 6 years now. It’s my primary reading device and I carry it everywhere. I do a lot of reading, and I don’t want to carry paper books around because of space/weight/poor selection in hostel libraries/etc. This Kindle is lightweight, has a long-lasting battery (even longer with the battery case) and can be read in the sun without getting a glare on the screen. Love it!
  • Laptop + charging cord
    • I have this because I’m a blogger and I find it easier to plan travels with a full-sized keyboard and screen, but if you’re on a shorter trip you can do without it. Maybe use a small bluetooth keyboard for typing long emails on your phone?
  • MyCharge Adventure H20 Turbo 10050 + cable
    • This thing is a brick, but it can charge my iPhone 11 four times if needed. My first MyCharge died and the company sent me a new one under warranty. Huzzah!
  • Nintendo Switch + games
    • I liked having this for a few months and then I didn’t even use it for four months because I was too busy traveling (and reading my Kindle). Taking too many entertainment options on a trip is one of my major downfalls– on roadtrips as a kid I’d always bring twenty books and only read three.
  • Power strip
    • This has USB slots and a few power plugs; it’s too bulky for me but it’s not super heavy and it works well, so I’m not replacing it yet.
  • SkullCandy earbuds + iPhone dongle
    • I never got into the wireless earbuds thing, so I just use these. Bonus: I can use them on planes!

Bathroom

  • Chapstick
  • Shampoo + conditioner bars (LUSH)
    • I only use these if the hostel doesn’t provide shampoo, so they last a while. However, turns out I prefer using leave-in conditioner anyway.
  • Leave-in conditioner
  • Deodorant
    • I managed to find stick deodorant in Malaysia and Thailand, so I just got a new one when I needed to. A regular-sized deodorant will last me three or so months.
  • Dr. Bronner’s Castile liquid soap, decanted into a 3oz bottle
    • This is good for laundry or for body wash, but I think I might switch to a bar next time for easier portability. You only need a few drops, mixed with some shampoo or body wash, and it’ll clean a whole sinkload of laundry!
  • Elastic hairbands x10 on a carabiner
  • Folding hairbrush
    • The handle snapped off immediately. At least that cut the weight and size down, I guess?
  • Laundry soap (powdered stuff I found in Thailand)
    • Makes a lot more suds than Dr Bronners and smells nicer, too. A small palmful is good for two t-shirts and a few pairs of underwear.
  • Lotion (Nivea Soft)
    • I’m more picky about my lotion than I expected. When I couldn’t find non-whitening Nivea lotion in three countries, I nearly threw a fit.
  • Nail clippers, razor, tweezers, razor
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste (100mL)
    • I always travel with a large bottle and it’s been fine.
  • Washcloth squares x3
    • Rather than one big washcloth, I cut it up into smaller squares. Two get used to help dry my shampoo/conditioner bars, and one’s for me. Easier to pack and they dry faster than one huge washcloth!
  • Scrubbing net
    • Like standard bath poofs, but in pre-poof form. They dry fast and pack down small.

Kitchen

  • Mug rug (handmade)
    • A totally optional thing I carry to make hotel rooms feel more home-y.
  • Utility spork thing from REI (similar)
    • Every so often I’ll run into a situation where I need a fork or spoon and can’t find one anywhere. This spork has come in handy SO many times over the last year.
  • Reusable plastic pouches x3 (Joie) (similar)
    • One gets used as a laundry bag– I wash underwear or a t-shirt inside it rather than directly in a sink, one gets used as a liquids bag (though I think it’s bigger than quart sized…) and one gets used for leftover food or snacks.
  • Tea bags + holder
    • Anyone else carry bags of tea around with them? My favorite discovery this year is Indonesian black tea. Delicious!

Medical

  • Mosquito spray (Soffell brand, 12% DEET)
    • Soffell is ubiquitous around Southeast Asia and isn’t expensive, and comes in two scents! (Orange is the best.) But otherwise I recommend bringing your favorite brand that you know works well for you because finding higher % of DEET is difficult.
    • Please note that many places in Asia have problems with dengue fever and malaria! Prevention is key, so get mosquito repellent and wear long sleeves/pants when the little buggers are active!
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Hand wipes/anti-bacterial wipes
  • KN95 masks + mask case
  • Medical pouch (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Benadryl, Loratadine, Pepto Bismal, Neosporin, bandaids, pads)
    • It’s easy to restock on most things, though at a slightly higher price point than in America. I did have a hard time finding Pepto Bismal/Benadryl equivalent sometimes.
    • I wrote about my medical kit in another post here!
  • Sunscreen SPF 50 x2 (Banana Boat)
    • I have two small bottles (under 100mL) and together they cost me $19 USD in Southeast Asia. Yeah, it’s expensive over there! But it’s necessary, so either bring a huge bottle or fork over the cash.
  • Neutrogena face lotion with SPF 15
    • I hate the feel of sunscreen on my face, so this is a good alternative to just not wearing any.
  • Sunscreen mineral stick
    • I hate the feel of this so I just kept it for backup.
  • Tiger Balm, white
    • Good for bug bites! The tingle of the Tiger Balm distracts you from the itch of the bug bite.
    • My German friend Helene had a bug bite zapper machine that worked WONDERS. Hold it to your bug bite and it breaks down the proteins (or something) so it shrinks faster and stops itching almost immediately. It works on mosquito bites and bee stings (testimony from my other friend Pablo, who was stung four times by Borneo bees on our river cruise). I’m picking one of these up for my next trip for sure.
Strapped to the back of the easy rider motorcycle, no problem!

Other

  • Passport + case
  • Vaccination card + case
    • Nobody’s asked to look at this in over a year. ๐Ÿ™
  • Locks x3 + carabiners x2 + pouch
    • I keep three kinds of locks, but they’re all small. I only use them for hostel lockers, really. One has a number combination, one has a key, and one is a number combination with a cable for those weird lockers that won’t fit any other lock.
  • Pen x4 (purple, black, Sharpie)
  • Safety pins x2
  • Sleeping bag liner, polyester (Decathlon store brand)
    • First time using one of these and it was really a lifesaver. I always found hostels (and many hotel rooms) too hot, either because the a/c couldn’t get through the bunk curtains or someone turned it off in the middle of the night. I used my sleeping bag liner as a thin sheet and it was MAGNIFICENT.
    • I’ve since upgraded to a silk sleeping bag liner! Exciting!!
  • Sock monkey (souvenir from Japan)
  • Traveller’s Notebook cover + notebooks x2
  • Wallet + cards, leftover cash

Everything together was just over 10kg (I think), so even though it’s a small bag I still packed more than I probably needed to. Luckily it never got weighed at any airline, even the budget ones.

Besides what I packed, I also kept track of what I got rid of over the course of the year. Might be interesting to see what got left behind, don’t you think? ๐Ÿ˜‰

What got left behind

Things I dumped from my backpack over the course of 2023:

  • Nintendo Switch case: too bulky, couldn’t fit it in once I started buying souvenirs. Dumped it and just wrapped the Switch in a tote bag for padding.
  • Reusable water bottle: barely anywhere to fill this and it didn’t fit properly into the Pacsafe purse.
  • Several pieces of clothing including leggings, thermal shirt, flannel jacket, BIG scarf, winter hat (once I left South Korea it was too hot for all of that anyway); swimsuit (never used, I hate water stuff); 5 pairs of socks due to shrinking or getting worn out or never getting properly dry and stinking like the devil; my favorite lounge set from Bali (wore out, looked something like this).
  • Microfiber towel: it smelled after a while and everywhere had free towels or $0.50 rentals).
  • A Roku streaming stick: stopped needing it because I mostly stayed in hostels the last 5 months, but for long-term AirBNB stays I think it’s great.
  • A pair of Columbia trail runners: totally wore out. The Ha Giang Loop and its three days of rain finally killed them. I just wore my Teva sandals after that!
  • Several tote bags, lost to laundry services that never returned them for some reason.

Interested in my Asian adventures? Check out these posts:

Anastasia is a former librarian turned digital nomad. She's been traveling the world full time for two years and has visited 18 countries so far! Just Gone Wandering is a travel resource for solo female travelers on a backpacker's budget-- or slightly more-- and highlights amazing places to visit as well as providing tips and tricks for traveling smart and frugal. Read more...

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