Backpacking in Southeast Asia
So after six months of backpacking around Asia, I can finally impart my wisdom on adventurers thinking about long-term travel. The key to backpacking is found in the action itself aka, P-A-C-K-I-N-G. You need to be smart about how you pack. You have to take into consideration things like: how many times will I actually wear this? Is this item practical to bring? And can I buy this on the road? Also, you’ll need to keep the local culture and climate in mind. For example, denim is not the fabric of choice in Southeast Asia. It takes ages to air-dry which is especially hard since dryers are a rarity and denim is a very heavy cloth, which sucks when you only have 12 kg to carry-on. Also did you ever think that a handkerchief would be useful? In Southeast Asia, you’ll be constantly sweating and the major cities are heavily polluted. Having a small handkerchief on hand will save your lungs. Finances tend to vary from per person to person depending on lifestyle choices so I won’t be touching upon money in this post. What I will say is that I saved up $10,000 for flights, accommodations, food, and experiences (including taking a four-week long TEFL course in Thailand) and tried to follow a strict $1000 budget per month. But overall, Southeast Asia is noted for being remarkably budget-friendly. You would never be able to travel for that long with that budget on a Eurotrip.
So in this guide, I’ll teach you how to prepare for a long-haul backpacking excursion in Southeast Asia with my newly acquired expertise.
PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP
Is your passport valid?
Most Southeast Asian countries require that your passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip. You will also need at least one blank page for every visa you apply for. On the road, I ran out of pages and had to go the US Embassy in Bangkok to get more pages which cost $82! But beginning January 1, 2016 the State Department will no longer amend passports to add extra pages. So make sure you have enough passport pages.
Do you have all the proper visas?
Most Southeast Asian countries require a visa. Do the research beforehand. Here’s a quick visa list for American travelers:
Indonesia: 30 day visa available on arrival for $25 at airports and seaports
Laos: 30 day visa available on arrival for $35 at airports and land borders.
Malaysia: Free 90 day visa available on arrival at airports and land borders.
Thailand: Free 30 day visa available on arrival at the airport.
Myanmar: Get an E-Visa for $50 here. Tourist visas are only valid for 28 days.
Cambodia: Get a E-Visa for $37 here. Tourist visas are only valid for 30 days.
Vietnam: Visas must be arranged beforehand at the nearest embassy. You can also get a pre-arranged visa on arrival. You can apply for this online at My Vietnam Visa. You’ll sent a letter of approval and when you arrive, you will be granted your visa. Bring a filled out application and two passport-sized photos to the airport. The wait can be very long so people tend to get their visas in advance. The cost for the visa is $20 for the approval letter and $25 for the stamp for a one-month visa.
The Philippines: Free 30 day visa available on arrival at the airport.
Singapore: Free 30 day visa available on arrival at the airport and land border.
Did you photocopy your documents?
Losing or having your wallet stolen happens all the time. I always make sure that before any trip, I make two copies of my passport (the first two pages), my credit cards and debit cards front-and-back, my trip itinerary and tickets, and my health insurance card. I give one set of copies to a family member and have one set of copies on me at all times. If you get pick-pocketed, you can get a family member to cancel all your cards since they have the information on hand.
Did you call your banks ahead of time?
Banks need to be notified ahead of time on what countries you’ll be traveling to so they don’t freeze your account while you’re on the road. Also, talk to them about your travel plans. If you’ve been a loyal customer for years, its very likely that they’ll erase all your foreign transaction fees they’ve implemented. Some small local banks even have a Smart Traveler program where they’ll reimburse you a certain amount for fees charged by foreign banks. Ask ahead.
Did you enroll for a Smart Traveler program?
The Bangkok bombings happened while I was in Bangkok this past August. It was a scary time for me since I was traveling with friends who were in Southeast Asia for their first time. For American citizens, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that notifies you of any travel warnings. Also, in case of a political/disaster-related emergency, the US Embassy can easily get in contact with you. For non-Americans, check with your embassy if they offer this service as well.
Do you have travel insurance?
You may want to pick up a new skill or two like learning how to ride a motorbike or going cliff diving. Most of the time, there’s no second-thought about the risk factor. But after almost killing my boyfriend in motorbiking accident, I cannot stress the importance of having travelers insurance! World Nomads is the BEST traveler’s insurance out there! Prices vary depending on how long you’ll be traveling, what kind of things you’ll be doing, and where you’re going but its usually very fair.
THINGS TO PACK
The age-old, fail-proof rule to packing: take half as many clothes, bring twice as much money.
It all starts with a great bag. And yes ladies, its true in this case: SIZE DOES MATTER! Invest in a high-quality backpack. Your spine will thank you. You want it to be able to weather the elements (some bags come with a rain cover) and withstand being tossed around in storage compartments. I got my bag from Deuter and I cannot recommend this brand to travelers enough! I loved how durable it was, how many pockets it had, and how comfortable the straps were. You’ll be supporting the weight on your hips so the bag you want should be sized to your torso length and your waist-size.
Other knickknacks: packs of tissue, tweezers, nail cutters, nail polish, poo-pourri (if you’re that shy type), energy bars, airborne, eye mask, reusable totebag, earbuds, scrubba wash bag, dry shampoo, a water-proof camera like a go-pro, packing cubes, a flat waterbottle, eyeglasses, travel on soap products, contact lens and lens solution, baby powder, moist towelettes, razors
THINGS TO BUY ON THE ROAD
I was a skeptic of the fanny pack until my younger sister Mira showed me just how cool they were. Then my best friend Cheyenne brought one with her when she came to meet me in Thailand and I was instantly hooked! You can get them on the road but you have to look hard for them. They come in cool tribal prints and are surprisingly very spacious. They also help you keep your most important items like your wallet and phone close at hand and hey, if you want to be that chick who rocks it across your waist, more power to you. The retro look is coming back with a vengeance!
If your phone is unlocked, get a simcard. A month’s worth of service in most Southeast Asian countries only runs you about $10-15 and you get a local phone number, 2 GB of internet (depending on the retailer), and the ability to use ridesharing apps like GrabTaxi and Uber. Being connected to the internet allows you to stay informed. You can find good deals on hostels in the area, learn helpful phrases in the local language, and calculate the distance from here-to-there. You will never have to run around looking for wifi to upload a good instagram picture and you can even use your phone as a hotspot if your hostel wifi connection is shitty!
Don’t bring too many of your favorite clothes. You’ll be kicking yourself when you have to decide between buying something you really love and throwing out something you really love. Or you’ll have to send clothes home like I did. Even though its cheap to mail things, its still something you shouldn’t have to waste time on. On my trip, I was constantly rotating my clothes as they wore out. In Southeast Asia, clothes are easy to come by, very inexpensive, and probably more suitable for the road and climate than what you’ve brought. Buying elephants pants are a rite of passage for travelers and I’m sure you will buy more than one. A perk: everything you end up buying becomes a great souvenir.
Convenience stores are everywhere and they stock everything you can think of. You can buy some toothpaste, a toothbrush, shampoo, conditioners, razors, wet wipes, and lotion — and better yet, they’re all travel-sized and very cheap. But just be warned: most items like lotions and deodorants have skin-whitening agents in them so if you don’t fancy the idea of whitened pits, bring your own. I’ve also found out that bug spray and sunblock are pricey so pack it if you have it.
Books are super heavy and take up too much precious space. Unless its a travel guidebook, let your favorite reads stay at home. New guidebooks are not cheap so think about picking them up at a second-hand book shop where they’ll be half their normal price. Also, one of the perks of hostel life is most have book exchanges so you can pick-up some good reading material for free and not have to worry about carrying it around. A lot of restaurants and cafes also offer book exchanges now too! Also, think about bringing a portable reading device like a Kindle or Nook. Make sure it has a case too to prevent it from getting scuffed up. I am a huge fan of reading actual books but having the Kindle was way more convenient and less of a hassle. The only downside? Ebooks are not any cheaper than buying an actual book so if you have a library card, inquire about electronic book borrowing capabilities.
Buy a journal instead of bringing one so you’ll have something to remember your trip. Most of the journals you can get abroad are also handmade so you’d be supporting local artists. Find them at a walking street bazaar or open-air market.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
So… how about shoes?
Don’t bring too many shoes. Again, backpacking is all about keeping things minimal. I had three pair of shoes tops and sometimes, it even felt like too much. Get a nice pair of walking shoes. These will be the shoes you live in so think about comfort and breathability. You may want to rethink closed-toed shoe options in tropical weather: chances are your feet will get sweaty and stinky being cooped up in those Toms or sneakers. I went for a pair of Birkenstocks with ankles straps which were an absolutely lifesaver! (Note: they need to be broken-in beforehand). You’ll also need water-resistant shoes for the beach, hotel showers, and possibly even recreational activities like white-water rafting or waterfall climbing. You can pick up fancy sandals on the road anywhere. Sneakers are bulky so only bring them if they’re an absolute must. If space is a big concern, you can find foldable sneakers here.
Think about clothes that are culturally appropriate
When I was in Thailand, my friends and I were scrambling to find clothes that covered our shoulders and our knees for temple visits. Sometimes throwing on a shawl won’t cut it. Lesson learned at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok where we had to rent some heinous grandma shirts to meet the dress code requirements. Southeast Asia is very conservative and while your first thought when it’s hot out is to put on your most scantily clad outfit, bear in mind modesty. This especially goes hand-in-hand with safety for female solo travelers. I always pack a one-piece swimsuit and it has saved me from many uncomfortable situations.
Utilize space as wisely as possible
Space is everything when you only have a backpack. Packing cubes are a great way to stay organized. I personally did not like cramming all my clothes into one extra large cube because it ends up being bulkier than rolling up every item of clothing you have. But, I really liked the small ones to separate my intimates, my swimwear, my shoes, and my electronics. For those who are all about hanging travel organizers, absolutely bring them! They’re not just meant for toiletries. Use the compartments to store loose jewelry, underwear, makeup, and medicine. You can even stuff small items in your shoes! Travelon’s toiletry sheets have transformed laundry soap, hand soap, body wash, shaving cream and even shampoo into wallet-sized dissolvable sheets that you won’t have to count as a liquid.
Buy things that are multi-purpose
You learn to become more resourceful when you’re on the road. My hairties doubled as wraps for loose cables and cords. My Teva Sandals were my favorite personal item. They acted as water shoes (saving me from getting knicked by nasty coral when snorkeling in El Nido), had fantastic grip (perfect for when I was climbing up the Sticky Waterfalls in Chiang Mai), were my bathroom shoes since they’re water-resistant and were very comfortable to walk in, even for trekking. I swear by Smith’s Rosebud Salve for both lip balm, hand lotion, and makeup remover. My sarong doubled as a towel, a bed spread for questionable hostel beds, a blanket, a skirt, a scarf, and even as a bag! If you don’t have one already, you can buy them everywhere in Southeast Asia.
DON’T DRINK THE WATER!!! Always ask for bottled water, no ice. Street food is okay so long as its prepared on the spot and there are lot of customers frequenting the stall, especially locals. I always advise friends to bring their own medicine kit. There are pharmacies everywhere but sometimes not knowing what you’re taking can be unsettling. I always carry Tylenol, Nyquil (fever reducer), Neosporin (anti-bacterial ointment), Imodium (anti-diarrhea), Dramamine (motion sickness relief), lozenges (for sore throats) and Pepto Bismol (upset stomach relief) with me wherever I go. After this trip, I found more items that come in handy. Peppermint oil is great for nausea and headaches on bumpy rides, stock up on rehydration salts and/or emergen-c packets because sun stroke is a real thing, and moist towelettes are great for the times you feel downright dirty. Also ladies: if you need your contraceptives, I suggest you stock up beforehand just to be safe. Even if countries sell birth control over the counter, it may not be similar to the ones you prescribe to. Also, think about your feminine products. Some Asian countries don’t sell tampons. Even though I don’t use The Diva Cup, all my traveling girlfriends rave about it! Plus its light-weight and good for the environment!
So there you have it! If you have any questions that I didn’t cover in this guide, please comment below. Did I miss anything in terms of what to pack? Let me know! xoxo Izzy