Backpacking Southeast Asia: What Not to Pack

Megan Lee

Anyone can easily Google what to pack for Southeast Asia, but almost all of those lists are too long and will bog you down with unneccessary gear. Of equal importance is what not to pack when backpacking Southeast Asia. Those who’ve been there have learned a thing or two about what you really don’t need to pack.

Before you can admire island sunsets, dip your spring rolls in peanut sauce, spot monkeys, take triple-digit-Insta-likes photos, and (basically) drown in condensed milk, you need to get your pack in order. Trust us when we tell you that less is more. Here’s what you should leave behind when backpacking in Southeast Asia.

Suitcase

Just… don’t. Yes, the big cities are as modern as any in the west, but they’re crowded in ways that make roller bags a drag. You’ll be happy to be not wrestling a suitcase up the stairs to the elevated train in Bangkok, or in and out of the tuktuks that pick you up at the bus station in Phnomh Penh, for the ride into town. 

Opt for a backpack instead. And since it’s Southeast Asia, opt for something water resistant. The Outbreaker Collection is perfect for backpacking Southeast Asia. Built for city travel, it’s well organized, easy to carry, and made of waterproof sailcloth, which will make all the difference when you learn, first hand, the meaning of “monsoon.”

Poncho

Ponchos aren’t the right answer for the type of weather you are likely to experience while backpacking in Southeast Asia. Instead, opt for a small umbrella, quick dry clothing materials, and a more substantial rain jacket that can easily pack down.

While you might take the rainy days in stride as a time to catch up on your book or have other indoor fun, a water resistant pack and a light rain jacket will ensure that the rain doesn’t slow you down. Most of the time, it only lasts an hour or two.

Mosquito Net

When backpacking Southeast Asia, be aware that mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and dengue fever are a possibility. And while an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, packing a mosquito net is excessive. Your hotel or hostel will come with one if they’re needed. Bug spray and a long sleeve shirt and pants will usually do the trick. If you really find yourself in need of one, you’ll be able to pick one up inexpensively in most towns.

For reference, there is no risk of malaria in Singapore or Hong Kong. Cambodia has some risk in the rural areas, including Angkor Wat. Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos have malarial risk outside of their major cities. Visit a travel doctor after you arrive in a major city and you’ll get the right kind of malaria meds at a fraction of the cost of bringing them from abroad.

Make Up

Because you’ll be so hot and sweaty anyway, maybe you should let your natural self shine and soak up that sweet tropical sun. Stick to your basics if you must (mascara, lip balm, and powder), but leave the entire line up back home.

If you really need to purchase something specific, try the big malls in larger cities, they have almost everything.

Hair Straightener or Blow Dryer

Let your lovely locks go au naturel! You’ll have to put up quite the fight against the humidity, and we recommend using that time to slurp noodles or coconut sorbet instead.

Sunscreen

You didn’t travel all the way to the beach to sit inside, did you? Of course not, and thanks to all of your inevitable sweat and dips in the pearly blue waters, you need sunscreen — the water resistant kind.

However there is no need to pack more than a travel sized bottle of sunscreen. You’ll find it available in every beach shop and 7-11. You’ll even find brands you recognize.

Jeans

Even if they’re your favorite travel buddies, your old blues will not serve you well in the Southeast Asian heat. They’re heavy and bulky in your pack, and just plain uncomfortable on your bod.

Fred, might disagree, and he’s welcome to pack his jeans, but getting a damp pair dry during monsoon season can take days. Choose quick dry fabrics, other travel pants, or skirts.

Any Pants, Really

Before you go off thinking, “Wow, those Tortuga characters are really anti-pants,” hear us out. Southeast Asia is famous for its adorable boho-chic baggy pants, and they’re practically a non-negotiable backpacker item for both men and women. So, maybe you don’t pack pants at all and instead pick up a few pairs when you get there.

Of course if you’d rather not look like you’re on the hippie trail, and you plan to go a little more chic than Khao San Road, a solid pair of travel pants made of quick dry fabric will do the trick. Ladies, a versatile travel skirt will go a long way towards keeping you cool in the heat.

Hiking Boots

Instead of hauling your big ol’ boots in your pack, consider bringing good quality running or exercise shoes. They might not look as hard core, but they’re perfect for big days of city walking, climbing to that temple perched atop the mountain, or going on an early morning jog to catch the fishermen at work.

Hiking boots are simply unnecessary, and the space they take up is prime real estate in your pack.

Too Few Shoes or Clothes — Especially if You’re Big & Tall

While you can buy a lot of wonderful things in Southeast Asia inexpensively, you’ll have a hard time finding a variety of sizes in clothes and shoes. If you are of average build in a western country, you’ll likely struggle to find comfortable clothes and shoes if you run short.

Prepare for this in advance by, YES, packing one extra pair of sandals (lightweight and easy to stuff in the bottom of your pack) and an extra just-in-case outfit (this can double as the luxuriously clean clothes you wear on the plane home if you never need ‘em).

If your shoe breaks on the street dodging a tuk tuk, your best bet for finding a replacement in size 10 women’s is a tourist center mall. 

Inappropriate Clothing

Backpacking Southeast Asia means entering an entirely new culture, with completely unique cultural norms. This extends from dinner manners to the clothing you wear. In general, play it cautious as you figure out what to pack for Southeast Asia clothes-wise. 

Pack fewer pairs of yoga pants, tank tops, shirts with cut off sleeves, belly shirts, and short shorts. Instead, go for for flowy and breezy, looser clothing, as super tight clothing might be viewed as offensive, even if it covers your knees and shoulders. Swap your Lululemons for drapey, slim harem pants — lightweight, breathable, and (with the right fabric) modest. If you do opt to pack a few tank tops, be sure to bring a scarf along to cover those shoulders just in case.

Throughout your travels, you will likely find that some locals will dress traditionally or conservatively, while others will wear more western styles. Use your best judgment. In general, try to dress more modestly if you are going to small towns or villages, and when visiting temples.

Places like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore are very modern, so feel free to dress there as you would back home. If you’re unsure, look around you and do as the locals do.

Excess Electronics

Southeast Asia is a hub for electronics. Major travel centers like Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok have earned their reputations for great deals on cameras, computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment. Depending on your location, you might be able to bargain for electronics as well. 

If you’re not that interested in high-end items, also know that you can easily buy chargers, converters, adaptors, and more at prices that even Amazon would be impressed with. 

Sleeping Bag  or Sleep Sheet

Many accommodations on the tourist paths in Southeast Asia have great quality bedwear. Sleeping bags and sheets end up being too bulky to justify their utility.

Leave these behind and commit to booking hotels, guest houses, or homestays that are both affordable and clean.

Non-Insulated Water Bottle

Nobody wants to stay hydrated with lukewarm (or HOT) water, and we know you’ll need something to chase all those Changs. Do the smart thing and invest in an insulated water bottle up front, and enjoy the cool, refreshing H2O later.

TL;DR

As you plan your purchases for your grand backpacking adventure in Southeast Asia, be sure to pay special attention to the items you don’t need to pack. 

Don’t bother with a:

  • Roller bag
  • Poncho
  • Mosquito net
  • Makeup
  • Hair straightener
  • Jeans
  • Hiking boots
  • Sleeping bag
  • Inappropriate clothing
  • Excess electronics

Do pack:

  • Extra clothes if you are a bigger size
  • Extra shoes if your have big feet 
  • An insulated water bottle