Essential packing tips for a Southeast Asia trip

If you’re heading on a trip to Southeast Asia, you may be wondering what to pack, how to pack and what kind of bag is best. Whether you’re heading on a 2-week whirlwind getaway or traversing this magical region for an entire year, we have you covered. Find out all the essential packing tips and tricks before you go in order to save you time and effort later.

Backpack vs. suitcase

First and foremost, you need to decide on what type of luggage holder you’re going to use. A hard case? Maybe. A duffle bag? Unlikely. A backpack? Probably. A briefcase? Definitely not. 

Hiking gear

Important factors to consider are the size, weight, capacity, and maneuverability of your chosen baggage. Let’s delve into the backpack vs suitcase debate. If you’re undecided between a suitcase or a backpack, consider these advantages and drawbacks.

Depending on your style of travel, a suitcase would suit shorter holidays to Southeast Asia, whereby most transport is via airplane and taxi. On the other hand, a long stint along the Banana backpacking loop would require bus and boat journeys, therefore a backpack would be significantly more ideal due to its maneuverability.

Sidewalks are seldom developed in most countries in Southeast Asia. Vietnam for example, has very narrow sidewalks with barely enough space to accommodate two people walking abreast.

Jake with luggage

Having a suitcase would be a curse more than a blessing, especially if you must walk from your hotel to a bus station. We learned this on our first holiday to Vietnam in 2015, when we used suitcases from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. By the end of our 3 weeks in Vietnam, our arms, as well as our suitcase wheels, were burnt out. 

Carry-on luggage can save you if you do it right

Carrying your luggage onboard a flight can save you heaps, particularly if you’re on a longer trip, and plan to take multiple flights around Southeast Asia. However, whilst budget airlines such as Air Asia and VietJet Air offer excellent deals on flights, an extra payment is required for checked-in luggage. If you really want to save cash, using a backpack that is the correct size and weight is key. 

AirAsia

Most airlines in the region allow a 7 kg limit, but always check when booking flights. There are also height and width restrictions. Therefore, if you plan to carry on your luggage, we recommend a backpack between 40 – 60 liters. Any bigger is unnecessary weight and space.

In our personal experience, airlines have been lenient and allowed 1 kg over the limit. Although we’ve also heard horror stories of backpackers being forced to pay around $100 for having their carry on even 1 kg past the limit; so be careful when choosing to carry on all your belongings. 

What to pack for your Southeast Asia trip that you may find difficult once your away

When it comes to deciding what to pack, our advice is not going to be a checklist of things you will need, rather a heads up on items that are very difficult to find in Southeast Asia, which we recommend you make sure to bring with you.

Summer vacation packing necessities

Footwear

We would recommend you find the best shoes for walking in the worst weather conditions before you get there. If your feet are on the larger side, you may find it difficult to purchase any type of footwear. For example, most local shops in Vietnam do not stock shoes that are larger than a size EU 42. 

Sunscreen

Whilst sun cream is readily available in all the convenience stores, it’s more expensive than at home. We recommended buying a bottle or two whilst you’re at home to save money when you arrive in Southeast Asia.

Certain beauty products

If you have a favourite brand of makeup or moisturizer, we recommend you purchase these at home and bring enough to last you. Whilst larger supermarkets do sell branded products, they don’t always stock the full range. Furthermore, it is difficult to buy fragrance free products or anything without skin whitening in it, so, if you’re out in Southeast Asia for a tan, then the products here are not going to help you with that.

Plug adaptors

Don’t forget those plug adaptors! Sure, with a lot of searching, you will be able to source them once you reach Southeast Asia, but who wants to be traipsing around with a dead phone and camera looking for a plug adaptor? The most common plug adaptor to use in the region is the two round pin one, known as type C. The only exception is Malaysia, which uses the UK style plug. Therefore, we recommend investing in a universal adaptor, so you have all the different style plugs in one place. 

Leave the piles of clothes in the wardrobe at home

A common tip is to lay all the clothes you plan to bring out in front of you. Then halve it! Put simply, you don’t need to bring along too many clothes. There is no need to bring two coats, seven pairs of shorts, fourteen pairs of socks, fourteen t-shirts, your mom, dad, granny and dog. You get the picture. 

There are plenty of clothing shops and market stalls across the whole of Southeast Asia selling all kinds of clothing. Not to mention, the prices for clothes are so much cheaper than in countries such as the UK or the USA. For example, you can pick up a pair of shorts and a t-shirt at the market in Hanoi for around $5. 

Clothing store in southeast Asia

Furthermore, clothes can get damaged and stained easily, particularly when you’re trekking through places like Sapa or the Borneo rainforest, so it is better to leave your best outfits at home and pack clothes that you don’t mind having to chuck in the bin should they get ruined.

Keep your toiletries & medicines in one place

Another essential packing tip is to invest in a toiletry bag. If you plan to stay in dorm rooms, you don’t want to be that person that is rummaging through their bag, trying to pull out all of your toiletries at 5:00 am. Investing in a toiletries bag means you can keep all of your bathroom equipment in one place, making it much easier to find when you need it. 

Toiletries

Speaking of toiletries, there is also no need to bring enough shampoo and toothpaste to last you for an entire three months. Supermarkets stock plenty of shampoo and toothpaste, just like at home. 

Pro tip: To save space and weight, change out shampoo bottles for tester shampoo sachets. You can stock up on these if you get them complimentary with your accommodation. Or, small local shops sell them for a couple of cents. 

Keep your electronics safe

If you plan to bring along your electronics, such as laptops, cameras, phones, GoPros, or anything of value, you will always need to keep them safe and with you when you are in transit. Placing your valuable items in your main backpack is a NO GO. Whether you’re taking a short bus journey from Da Nang to Hoi An, or an overnight journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, you will probably need to place your backpack in the hold at the bottom of the bus. Never place your valuable items here. 

Katie working abroad

Make sure you bring along a smaller day bag to wear on your front, where you can see it. This will prevent any sticky handed thieves unzipping your bag and dipping their fingers in for your things.  Speaking of keeping your valuables safe, this doesn’t only apply to electronics. Make sure to keep your passport in the valuables bag too! 

How to pack for comfort

Roll. Don’t fold. If you’re backpacking, rolling your clothes will avoid scrunches and creases in your clothes. Pack both top and bottom-heavy, whereby you arrange the heaviest items at the bottom of the bag and the top of the bag. Too much weight at the bottom will give you back pain. Too much weight on top puts strain on your shoulders. Distributing the weight accordingly will avoid lower back strain and shoulder strain.

Furthermore, as well as packing for comfort physically, you need to also pack for comfort when it comes to wearing your clothes. That’s why we recommend that you separate your dirty clothes from your clean clothes, to avoid dampness and smells transferring to your freshly washed clothes. Consider a backpack with multiple zippers and pockets to make separating items easier. Alternatively, you could use cloth bags or even packing cubes to help with this.

Airport in Vietnam

There you have it, essential packing tips for a trip around Southeast Asia. Try to keep the weight of your luggage down so you can save $$$ on checking luggage in when taking flights. Leave the heaps of clothes at home, but make sure to bring along a good pair of shoes and plenty of sun cream for those lazy beach days. Finally, make sure to always keep your valuables safe, including your passport!

Want to travel across the land and sea?

Get inspired with more stories by travelers, for travelers