When you’re planning your travels, it is tempting to buy the biggest backpack you can find and fill it with every item you think you might need for the next seven months, but remember, unless you are being really flash and taking a butler, you have to carry it! My advice? Whatever you think you need, halve it!
I am only five foot so I didn’t want to lug around a huge backpack. After a fair amount of research, I opted for a Berghaus Ridgeway 60+10 litre backpack. I chose it because I had read it was good for women and shorter people. It was perfect for my requirements, although I think I could have got away with a smaller one if I had packed a little less!
I placed everything I had bought for the trip into five piles on the bed: pile one was essentials (passport, money, medication); pile two was things I felt I needed with me (laptop, e-reader, underwear, etc.); pile three was things I thought I might want to take with me (toiletries, books, more clothes); pile four was luxuries and pile five just simply wasn’t going to happen. I packed pile one and discarded pile five. Then I packed pile two and tested the weight. All good. I then divided pile three in half, packed the first half and realised I was done! Pile four and half of pile three had to be left behind.
Based on my experiences, here are my suggestions what you need and what you definitely don’t need to take with you.
Money – we took a small amount of currency with us (about £200) and used a debit card while we were abroad to withdraw cash. It is helpful to carry an emergency credit card in case of emergencies. Remember, if you do have a medical emergency you may need to pay for treatment there and then and claim the money back on your travel insurance so make sure you have enough to cover unexpected expenses. There are ATMs everywhere, but we also took £200 in US dollars which we could have exchanged if necessary. Sounds obvious, but make sure any passwords or PIN numbers are kept away from your laptop and ideally disguised e.g. as phone numbers.
Passport – you will need a passport with at least six months to go before it expires. Some countries also require you to have a set number of blank pages. As well as your passport, check if you need a visa before you go to each country. Some countries (e.g. Cambodia, Laos) issue one on arrival but others (e.g. Vietnam) require you to have one in advance, particularly if you are staying for more than 30 days. It is also useful to carry some spare passport pictures for visa applications.
Medication – check the Foreign Office website first to find out if there are any restrictions on taking personal medication with you. Some countries will only allow you one months’ supply and you may not be able to find what you need in South East Asia. We actually changed our route not to fall foul of the restrictions.
E-reader / paperback book – I took around 100 books with me downloaded onto my e-reader but it’s always nice to have a paperback to hand for reading at the beach or on bus journeys. I took one thick paperback and then swapped it as I travelled. You can usually find a bookshop willing to swap it or a bookcase in a hotel. Travel books such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide can be found at most airports and in most bookshops so don’t feel that you need to take them all with you. Buy one for your first destination and then swap it for your next as you go along.
Tampons – you will find tampons in some of the larger towns and cities, but they are by no means common and you won’t get the brands you are used to. Sanitary towels are widely available but tend to be big and bulky or tiny and ineffective. Stock up and take as many as you can with you.
A fleece/hoodie – you may think you won’t need a jumper but some places in South-East Asia can get pretty cool, particularly at night. You may also fall foul of excessive air conditioning. The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for example was absolutely freezing. A hoodie also makes a good pillow for uncomfortable bus journeys.
Mobile alarm clock / watch – essential for those 4am starts. Yes, you can set the alarm on your e-reader or phone, but it does help to have one that is not linked to a power supply. I bought mine from Argos for £5 and it was money well spent. A watch is also helpful for trips and travelling around.
A torch – electricity can be a bit hit and miss in some parts of South East Asia and you may also find yourself walking down dark roads without any street lights. My torch was wind-up which was perfect as I didn’t need to worry about the batteries going.
Mobile phone – a good smart phone will double up as an e-reader, camera and communication device, however posing with the latest model does make you a target for thieves. Try not to put everything you need onto your mobile phone in case it breaks or gets stolen. I printed out a list of phone numbers and essential contacts. You can buy waterproof cases and selfie sticks at almost every tourist attraction you visit.
WHAT YOU DON’T NEED
T-shirts and cotton trousers – they’re as cheap as chips in South East Asia and available from every night market. The cotton trousers are usually one size so will fit everyone and you can buy t-shirts in larger sizes. Expect to go up a few sizes though. A ‘small’ in Asian countries is very small indeed! However, finding a pair of jeans to fit me was near on impossible!
Toiletries – they may not be the brands you usually use, but you can find shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, moisturiser, shower gel, etc. everywhere you go, even in the more remote places. Many contain whitening products which can cause skin rashes so try to avoid those. I struggled to find hair conditioner apart from in the bigger towns and cities. Stock up on sun cream and insect repellent when you find it as well as you don’t want to run short.
Make-up – even if you are the type of person who never leaves the house without make-up, you will probably find you won’t use it when you are in South-East Asia. You will get by with an eye liner and some lip gloss for days when you want to look extra glam. Most people don’t bother. The same goes for high heels (not going to happen) and fancy dresses.
Jewellery – as above, it’s just a magnet for thieves. Buying jewellery in SE Asia is a pleasure anyway and a nice reminder of your trip. I did take my wedding ring and a necklace my parents gave me but I never took them off.
Remember to keep your valuables with you when you’re travelling, or in the hotel safe, if you have one. Never put anything you don’t want to lose into a luggage hold.