When I first was co-planning my trip to Bali and Java, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia; and Singapore, I was a bit overwhelmed. That’s a lot of countries, and a lot of different activities: hiking, surfing, swimming, drinking, dining, touring, yoga-ing, worshiping … how does one decide what to pack, and fit it all in one’s suitcase?
When deliberating on what to wear in Southeast Asia, I started by doing as much research as possible on outfit expectations, activities, and other Good Things to Know about visiting the area. I read articles by seasoned backpackers and Australian moms alike. I thought about what things could do double and triple duty, while still looking slightly fashion forward. Then I got more advice from my friend who was already making her way around Asia, finding out what she was grateful she brought, and what she wish she had brought.
(PS. I wrote up a guide to Bali as well.)
Then, I went. And I amended the packing list a little more during and after the trip, adding and subtracting. The result is the following list of items I personally found very handy. It may seem like a lot, but I can tell you that it will all fit in one rolling carry-on.
You might be most interested in the Bali packing list. After all, it’s Bali! You know, the Bali of Eat Pray Love? Hey, it’s a cliché, but there’s a reason she found love and happiness there. It’s got yoga, healthy cafés, Buddhist temples, wildlife, surfing, beaches, amazing sunsets, $15 massages, and everything else that is what I want on a vacation.
But if you’re like many people I met on my two-week, whirlwind tour, you’ve got several destinations on your list. In fact, I found that our itinerary was a common one. And these guidelines would also apply to a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and more.
So. What should go on a woman’s perfect packing list for a visit to Southeast Asia?
First, here are the rules of packing for this region:
1. It’s hot. Dress accordingly.
2. Don’t wear black. It attracts and holds heat, and hardly anyone–save the women in burkas–wears it anyway. This is a hard one for me, being a New Yorker!
3. Have some modest options. You’ll especially want something for your shoulders and down below your knees for visiting the temples, and if you worry about offending people in some of the more Muslim areas.
4. Prepare for mosquitos. Long sleeved tops in breathable fabrics and the same for pants will keep you from going insane, especially at night. Also, it might help you avoid the dreaded Dengue fever, which you can pick up in Singapore, and malaria, which you can pick up in some developing countries.
5. Defend yourself against “Bali Belly.” This applies to almost everywhere in Asia, but I’ll just call it Bali Belly, which is what the Australian tourists call it. It’s not to be confused with the mild distress that comes with adjusting to a different produce-heavy, spicy cuisine. (Hopefully not a problem for you if you already eat healthy). But the real deal is, apparently, awful and disgusting and will lay you up in bed for three days straight. To protect yourself, you should only eat produce that has been cooked or that you can peel yourself, only drink from sealed bottled water, never use straws (since some places rinse and reuse them), and apply hand sanitizer liberally and often, especially after handling money. I’ve included some items on this list to protect you and help you.
6. Bring a couple (mildly) dressy things. And by “dressed up” I mean a casual dress with sandals. You’ll want to go out for dinner or a drink at times. Unless you’re going to Singapore, where you might want to bring on the flash and bling.
7. Make it all washable. You will sweat through everything, and so you want to be comfortable dropping it off at the local laundromat, which in Southeast Asia can usually do it for you by the next day.
Your Traveling Outfit
I’m assuming you’re traveling from the U.S. or Europe, and you’ll be on the plane for many, many hours. But this outfit is also great for taking the overnight train in Thailand, which is extremely comfortable, but can be over-air-conditioned.
- Ably white t-shirt – Again, has stain-resistant technology, which is crucial if you’re traveling.
- Soft cotton yoga leggings – I recommend these. They’re so versatile and comfy!
- Sports bra
- Comfortable undies in natural fabric
- Wool socks – I love merino wool because it wicks away moisture and odor.
- Sweatshirt – Something fairly fashionable but in cotton.
- Trail running shoes – I would pack these if you think you’ll be doing any long hikes in the mountainous region, especially during rainy season. In black, these aren’t super dorky looking, and are smaller and lighter than hiking boots. But if hiking is really not your style, then I would suggest just simple sneakers.
- Bumbag – I got into the habit of strapping a hip bag across my chest when I travel, because it gives me quick and secure access to my passport, wallet, and tickets, without me having to take off my backpack. But you can also do a pretty little cross-body purse.
- Passport and Passport case – Pockets in a case are super handy for storing your vaccination paperwork, extra visa photos, etc.
- Charging cord
- Mini wallet – There’s lots to choose from at O My Bag, or get a Simple Wallet from Velé.
- Sunglasses – here’s my shopping guide to the best eco sunglasses.
- Casual watch – You’ll be happier checking your wrist rather than pulling out your phone constantly. Here’s a list of sustainable watch brands.
- (Optional) Uniqlo ultralight down jacket – My recommendation if you’re leaving from a cold country, otherwise, you won’t need it. This stuffs down into a tiny size so you can shove it in the bottom of your suitcase for the duration of your visit.
Clothing and Accessories:
- Long-sleeved blouse in breathable fabric – this was great for visiting temples and is also nice to have if you are out at night and the mosquitos are trying to join you at dinner. Tradland has some great versions, and Sourcery has some washable silk options.
- 2 tank tops – in white and your other favorite color or pattern. Try Jungle Folk, Ziran, or Ohsevendays for some tanks that can go from the beach to the city and still look chic.
- Long-sleeved white tee – Cute enough to wear in the city, at night against mosquitos, but also great for hiking. Get one from Ably, so that it resists stains.
- Reversible washable tie top – Tie it in the back and it’s a lovely top that goes with any bottom, from jeans to a skirt. Tie it in the front and it’s super sexy. It seems to be sold out at Elizabeth Suzanne, but Whimsy & Row has a linen version. Ohsevendays also has some to choose from.
- High-waisted shorts – Either in denim or cotton.
- 2 pairs of long, loose, pants in lightweight fabric (a.k.a. pajama-style pants) – Many backpackers buy those cheap “elephant pants” you see everywhere, but I have a very strong feeling those are made in exploitative conditions. Instead, I suggest MATTER Prints, Par en Par, Forsythia, or Ziran’s silk petal pants.
- Sleeved knee-length or longer lightweight dress or romper – You want something washable that you can wear out to a temple, out to dinner at a resort or over your bathing suit at the beach. Par en Par does a great one, or check out Mirth, Ziran, or Accompany.
- Sundress – the dress I’m wearing in the above picture is from Pondicherie, but here are more sustainable sundresses to choose from.
- Workout tank for hiking and doing yoga – Find a good selection on Alternative Apparel, Asquith, Inner Fire, Prana, and Tasc.
- Yoga pants – I know I put one in your travel outfit, but you’ll want a second lightweight pair. Inner Fire has my favorite patterns.
- Athletic shorts – you’ll wear these a lot., for hanging out or doing outdoor activities.
- Cotton sarong – for drying your hair, wearing, and using as a beach towel in a pinch.
- Brimmed hat – This one rolls up so you can pack it instead of wearing it on the plane!
- Rain jacket with hood by Marmot – Folds up tiny. I’ve been so grateful for this multiple times.
- Flat-pack day bag – You could do a leather backpack from Raven + Lily, which I personally prefer, or pack an attractive reusable canvas or cotton bag that you have lying around.
- Swimsuits – Here’s a list of sustainable swimwear brands.
- Silk or cotton scarf – for tying back your hair or wrapping around your shoulders at a temple. I like Miss Pom Pom.
- Tevas – for short hikes, water sports, and showering in shared or outdoor bathrooms.
- 2 pairs of short wool socks – why wool if Thailand is warm? Because lightweight merino wool wicks away sweat and odor.
- One pair Birkenstocks – you will love me so much for suggesting these. They are incredibly comfortable and well-made, to the point where you could wear them every single day of your trip and be perfectly happy. I suggest you get them in simple black leather straps, so that you can wear them out to dinner or even to a bar without looking too much like a tourist.
- Neutral nice sandals – for something a wee bit fancier but still comfortable, Singapore or a fancy resort. Find a big selection on ABLE.
- Kayu clutch – great for dressing up or down to take along just the essentials.
- Underwear – Here’s my 5 rules for packing undies for travel.
- Lightweight pajamas – I like People Tree
- Casual, beach-y jewelry
- A hand fan – A must for festivals or dancing on the beach to music. You can also buy this as a souvenir literally anywhere you go.
- Mpowered Luci light – I like this better than a flashlight because it’s lightweight, collapsible, will float on water, and is generally just like a pretty lantern, instead of the high beam of a flashlight that blinds anyone you accidentally train it on.
- PurSteam traveling iron/steamer – this thing is tiny, but crucial!
- Travel yoga mat – So you can get a good long stretch in every morning, regardless of where you are. I fold mine up and pack it inside the suitcase
- Universal sink plug – So you can wash your clothing in the sink. I used mine constantly.
- Travel dry line – I like this one because it comes with a stuff sack.
- Waterproof reusable laundry bag – Things will get wet and you’ll want to put them in something waterproof…so synthetics wins out on this one.
- Travel sewing kit – I used this several times.
- Reusable sealable bags – I got these on the recommendation from a digital nomad blog, and I’m so glad I did. We’ve been using various sizes already for things that come up, but they take up no room in my suitcase side interior pocket.
- Luggage locks – Bring two! When we were in a camping situation with no safe, I put one on my suitcase and one on the tent zippers when we stepped out.
- Travel first aid kit – Get a basic one, then add in medications you’ll need, like malaria pills, altitude medication, ibuprofen, Imodium, etc. You can always get more medicine where you’re going, most likely, for cheaper than in the U.S.
- Argan oil – I can’t live without argan oil for making my hair shiny and smooth, plus sealing in moisture on my face after a shower.
- Coola Tinted SPF BB cream – This is my absolute favorite tinted SPF moisturizer. It’s not too thick and makes your face glow!
- 1 lip tint – Something subtle and beach-appropriate
- Biodegradable glitter – this is the simplest way to decorate yourself for a festival or beach party, without packing a lot of crazy stuff.
- Micellar water – I love traveling with Micellar water because you don’t need to use water for it.
- Reusable cotton rounds
- Travel toothbrush and toothpaste – I have to admit, mine is plastic because I wanted a compact toothbrush with a protective cap.
- Deodorant – here’s my roundup of my favorites.
- Mesh shower bag – Having all my shower stuff in a separate bag is crucial to ensure I don’t leave things behind in the shower, because I see the empty shower bag when I’m packing and remember I need to fill it up.
- Shampoo and conditioner in travel size – I use conditioner for shaving, too. I refilled the mini bottles whenever I was in a hotel or place that keeps large bottles in the shower.
- Preserve razor made from recycled plastic
- Shower cap – I got one from Shhhowercap that wouldn’t be thrown away by the cleaning people the way small plastic ones are, but it came in over-the-top, wasteful packaging, so I don’t recommend it. But once I had it, I stuffed it in a little cotton bag.
- Sunscreen – Here’s my guide to non-toxic sunscreen.
- Dr. Bronner travel-sized soap – Great for if the place you are staying doesn’t provide hand soap, or if you need to wash your clothes in the sink.
- Bugspray – My absolute favorite
- A Sea-band anti-nausea relief bracelet if you get seasick
- Menstrual cup – reusable, therefore you won’t have to go on a pilgrimage for tampons. Once you use it, you’ll never go back.
- Nail file – great for both filing and digging crud out from under your nails.
- Mini hairbrush
- Hair elastics
- Mini nail scissors
This waterproof and pickpocket-proof backpack is the best for travelers. If you’re taking a boat through choppy seas, or it’s raining, this will keep your stuff dry.
- Portable phone charging battery
- Lifestraw purifying water bottle
- Books/magazines – Put away your phone and indulge in some old-fashioned reading and relaxation.
- Earbuds – get the Bowery’s by LSTN
- Earplugs – Get them on a string so you don’t lose them when they fall out
- Camera and lenses, extra battery, battery charger, extra memory cards – I love my compact but powerful Fuji x-t10, with a wide angle lens for landscape, architecture, and room shots; and a 50 mm lens for portraits and food.
- Camera battery charger
- Lens bag and camera bag
- Moleskine – for jotting down your deep thoughts
- Travel pen with carabiner
- Chico reusable bag with stuff sack
- Wide-mouth reusable coffee cup with sealable lid – Can be used for coffee, or also as a to-go container in a pinch for soup, fruit, snacks, etc.
- Sunglasses – here’s my shopping guide to the best eco sunglasses
- SPF chapstick
- Mini tube of SPF cream – It’s so handy to have this in day bag all times in case you find yourself in full sun. Here are my favorites.
- Hand sanitizer – It’s common that there’s no soap available, or you’ll fall in love with a stray kitten that you want to pet!
- Bamboo travel utensil set – so you don’t have to use disposable one in areas that have terrible or non-existent waste disposal. Make sure it’s plastic or wood (not metal) so it doesn’t get confiscated by airport security.
- Reusable straw – Most drinks don’t need straws, but mojitos and coconuts do!
- Pack of tissues – this isn’t for your nose, so don’t think I’m advocating this over a reusable handkerchief. It’s for bathroom emergencies.
- Reusable handkerchief – Yup, this one is for your nose, or you can use it as a napkin.
- Portable pillow
- Keychain wet bag
- Eye mask
- Adaptor – you could order this, or just pick one up in the airport as soon as you land, which I think is the simpler solution.
- Basic toiletries – Micellar water and cotton round, moisturizing face oil, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant (see below) – When spending more than 24 hours on planes, you’ll be happy to have access to these.
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