Packing for SE Asia can seem fairly straightforward. Bug spray, sunscreen and a swimsuit, right? While you certainly need all of those, there are a few other essentials for enjoying your travels through the wonders of SE Asia.
Some things should be brought with you, as they can be difficult to find once you arrive. Other things are best saved for when you get there. Below is our list of SE Asia travel must-haves (or any hot sticky tropical place, for that matter!)
mBuy it at home
Steripen – do not travel to SE Asia without a means of sterilising water. They have a big enough pollution problem as is without tourists guzzling water from single use plastic bottles already. The steripen purifies water by UV light, and leaves behind no aftertaste like idione tablets would. It is portable, rechargeable, and will give you confidence that you won’t have to go searching for fresh water every where you go.
Water bottle – it goes without saying to bring your own lightweight 1L water bottle along as well. We like these Anavik bottles because they’re comfortable to use and carry, have good flow from the easily washable spout, and the lid can be operated with one hand. It can also be locked in place to avoid accidental spills.
Probiotics – By and large, the food you’ll find on the tourist circuit won’t make you sick. In fact, SE Asian food is some of the freshest most wonderful food you can find on Earth. But in order to put a little extra oompf in your guts, we recommend taking a daily probiotic to keep the good bacteria flourishing and the bad bugs from taking hold. Nothing will ruin a good holiday like a prolonged intimate experience with a squat toilet.
Malaria prescription – depending on when and where you go in SE Asia, you may or may not have to concern yourself with malaria. The UK’s Fit For Travel is a good resource for finding out more. But it would be wise to ask your travel clinic at home for a prescription for malaria tablets before you go…but don’t get it filled. The tablets themselves are extraordinarily expensive, and there are several options of formulation. They interact differently with different drugs that you might be taking already, so do discuss with your doctor before you go. So why not get it filled before hand? Where malaria is, malaria treatments will also be, at a significantly reduced rate to what we pay in the West. Have your prescription handy for when and if you need it.
Flip flops, thongs, jandals – whatever you call them, you need something for your feet. You’ll be walking around a lot, so you want something sturdy and supportive on your feet. But you’ll also be kicking off those shoes every time you enter a building, so you don’t want something so cumbersome to take on and off. I prefer these Reefs that have a sturdy bottom and a comfortable padded leather strap. We had several blow outs at inopportune times with a very popular and expensive Brazilian brand that will not be mentioned here, and I for one will never be wasting my money on those horrible flip flops again.
Tea Tree Oil and essential oils – Rooms can get horribly musty in humid climates, through no fault of the cleaning lady. I recommend bringing a little bottle of tea tree oil and at least one other essential oil blend to freshen up your room on arrival. The tea tree oil can be used to scare away bed bugs, or mixed with water to disinfect anything you like.
Healthy hand wipes – Forego disposable hand wipes, and instead put a face cloth in a little baggie with some water and a few drops of tea tree oil. It will stay fresh as long as you give it a rinse each night. It will keep you clean and sanitised while being kinder to the environment.
Gifts – Bring some useful gifts like pencils or toothbrushes for the adorable kids you’ll want to pack up and take home with you. Dental hygiene is horrendous in much of SE Asia, and school supplies are expensive. Give the kids something useful, not candy or money.
Wind up flashlight – the power will go out somewhere at some time. Bring a little wind up flashlight, throw it in your day pack, and it will be there when you need it.
First aid kit – Same goes for a little first aid kit stuffed with bandaids and blister patches. Also include alcohol wipe, cortisone cream, and after bite anti-itch spray.
Mask and snorkel – the water is clear, the fish are colourful, and the masks and snorkels in SE Asia are more expensive than they should be, and poorly assembled. Bring your own.
Buy it in Asia
Prickly Heat Powder – if you’re prone to heat rash, it will strike you in SE Asia. I was recommended the Snake Brand Prickly Heat Powder by a pharmacist, and have thanked her for saving my sanity ever since. Find it in any pharmacy in SE Asia for way cheaper than you can buy it online at home.
Fan – Make one of your market purchases be a fold up fan (yes, like the flamenco dancers use). You will not regret it.
Bug spray – this one is a personal choice. If you want to spray DEET all over your body, you’ll have to bring that from home (just check that you can import it before you go.). If you prefer a more natural, but equally effective insect repellant, then there are several varieties available across SE Asia, found in mini markets and pharmacies everywhere you go. I preferred the peppermint based formula as it smelled nice and worked very well.
A big hat – It’s hot, the sun is strong, and you’re wilting. Buy a big hat in the markets and keep the sun from beating down on your head.
Cloth shopping bag – don’t forget to pick up a reusable cloth shopping bag on your first foray into the markets, and use it. It will save dozens of plastic bags entering the environment during your stay.
Sarong – also plentiful in the markets, pick up a few sarongs and pack one with you when you go out. They make excellent picnic or beach blankets, can provide protection from hot seats on bare skin, be a bathing suit cover up, towel or even protect your immodestly bare shoulders from the sun.
North Face, Colombia, Patagonia, etc. – Your favourite outdoor brands are made in Vietnam. Go to the local markets to pick up excess branded clothing in the form of jackets, running tops, pants, shirts, etc. For a genuine fraction of the retail cost. They’re made at the factory just down the road, and the clothes are often the real deal. The bags aren’t though. Buy the clothes, not the bags.
Just for the ladies
It is hot and sticky in SE Asia almost any time of year. Despite the heat and humidity, women are still expected to dress modestly. When it comes to visiting wats (and you will) that means your arms and legs must be covered.
Bring some loose shirts with sleeves in natural fabrics from home. If you have any chest or shoulders at all, you will not fit in to Asian sizes, and will struggle to find suitable tops to buy.
Scarf or shawl (Buy)
There are millions of beautiful scarves in all colours and patterns, and can be picked up in the markets quite inexpensively. Its fun to shop for them, and a scarf can be used to create a makeshift cover if you suddenly find yourself in front of a wat or government building unmodestly prepared.
Note: covering with a shawl won’t cut it for the National Palace in Bangkok. You’ll need to be properly dressed and covered for this spot. The guards will turn you away at the gates if you’re not.
Wat pants, Elephant pants, hippie pants, harem pants, whatever you want to call them, you’re going to want to buy some. Why? Because everybody who is anybody is wearing them, they are as comfortable as they look, and they come in such pretty colours and patterns. I dare you to resist buying a pair of these loose pants when in SE Asia. But they’re not just in impulse buy. They’re practical too. They provide the coverup that modesty requires for visiting most of the sites, but still keep you cool by allowing air to flow up them. Wat pants are a must.
Big underpants (Bring)
Let’s talk about chafing. Sundresses are pretty, light and cool in the heat, and are on offer all over every market. But unless you’re one of those lucky ladies in the world whose thighs don’t know one another, the sweat and sticky air means chafing. Go to the granny panty section of your local department store, and buy a split leg slip or some long slimming type underpants (just not the tight ones). You and your chafing thighs will thank me for this piece of packing advice.
Small underpants (bring)
The last thing you want is for your sweaty underpants to stick to you all day long. These lightweight and importantly fast drying athletic underpants by Under Armour do the trick nicely, and can be hand washed and dried by morning.
A Cup (Bring)
Aunt Flo likes to go on holiday too, and she has a nasty habit of stowing away in your luggage until you arrive in a tropical destination, fully unprepared. While sanitary napkins are fairly easy to come by, tampons are not, and they’re all expensive. Not to mention the problems SE Asia has with keeping their rubbish and sewage out of their waterways. The Moon Cup, Diva Cup and other products like them take some getting used to, but once you go cup you never ever go back. Get used to it at home for a couple of months before you go, and bring along a little squirt bottle with tea tree oil in it for cleaning. It has been my number one travel companion, and can’t imagine surviving the last 12 months of continuous travel without it.
Finally, laundry service is fast, cheap and plentiful, so don’t over pack. Leave plenty of room in your suitcase for souvenirs like silks or samauri swords (just kidding on the last one), and pick up some essentials while you’re there.
Have a wonderful trip!