packing lightly
February 27, 2008 2:42 AM   Subscribe

i'm trying to pack conservatively for a one month backpacking trip through south east asia. what items should I leave at home and purchase easily/cheaply while I am there and what items should I be sure to pack that I cannot get while abroad?
posted by nyu2 to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You should list your itinerary (or at least your first country of entry) as countries may differ in what they offer.

Also, if you haven't searched for it, check out the SE Asia Essentials question for some ideas.
posted by hobbes at 3:11 AM on February 27, 2008

Okay.. skimmed the essentials thread and there's a lot of noise. Skip down to the OP's last post for the best.

- a ziploc bag full of ziploc bags
- some packets of Emergen-C/Airborne (cause you don't wanna stop)
- headlamp
- first aid kit (neosporin + bandages in a ziploc bag)
- some sort of thingy to hide your money in your pants
- good pair of flops (there's a bunch of street vendors selling flip-flops, but the quality is generally shit.. get a pair of Tevas as you're gonna be on your feet all day, all month)
- rain cover for your backpack if you don't have one already

Buy there:
- Tiger Balm ;)

Scan your passports and tickets, e-mail 'em to yourself, and you're set to go!
posted by hobbes at 3:35 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in Thailand right now and I second buying good sandals before you get here. I'd get a pair of zip-off travel shorts that become pants - this is useful for going into temples where you want to cover up out of respect.

Sunscreen seems to be abnormally expensive here, you'll probably want to bring that.

The general rule of thumb is limit yourself to things you absolutely HAVE to have, and then get rid of half of that.
posted by bertrandom at 3:45 AM on February 27, 2008

hobbes beat me to it - see my own question, linked above.

also, take a look at this thread, from the Sydney Morning Herald's backpacker blog, another regular hangout of mine.

Generally speaking, you can buy anything you need in SEA, cheaper than back home. I'd advise packing an absolute minimum, and picking stuff up on the road.

Decent footwear is probably the only essential that you'd want to bring with you, because you want it to be worn in. A silk sleeping cocoon & a first aid kit are also must-haves. You can probably throw these together when you arrive, but with a day or so of running around, which is a bit of a waste of time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:51 AM on February 27, 2008

Check out the OneBag page, as well--it's not geared specifically toward backpackers, but has some incredibly useful information about what to bring/not to bring, what you might end up needing that you didn't expect to need, items that can serve several different purposes, etc.
Sandals are a good suggestion, as well. I'd personally recommend something from Chaco or Keen; Chaco makes sandals that have soles designed for hiking, and (IIRC) a lifetime warranty. If you're not usually a sandal-wearer, though, the straps on Chacos can chafe a bit before they're broken in. Keen's have the nice toe-box, which is handy if you're like me and have a nasty habit of kicking things.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 4:20 AM on February 27, 2008

Bring some postcards or photos from your home. Sometimes it's nice to show people where you live.
posted by iamck at 4:58 AM on February 27, 2008

This is general rather than specific backpacking advice, but when I traveled with a friend through France we would have died without our decks of cards (Uno and regular) and one throw-away paperback each. This might seem frivolous for a conservative packer, but trust me. You don't say whether you are going with a partner or alone, but either way you're going to have a lot of down time while you are waiting for transportation, taking trasnportation, waiting around for food/people etc. If you're alone, a book you can get rid of when you're finished is perfect - it's not that much extra weight, and makes a little souvenir room when it's gone. If you are going with a friend, definitely, definitely, definitely bring something like cards or a game for you to do during your downtimes. It will give you something to do and something to talk about during lulls, whereas otherwise you might begin to pick and snipe at each other out of boredom.

Actually, now that I think about it, bring the cards anyway - I met some pretty fun people on trains and in hostels by inviting them into the game.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 5:15 AM on February 27, 2008

2nding ziploc bags. So handy.
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:54 AM on February 27, 2008

Second bertrandom.

Also, I took a lot of light clothes like t-shirts and skirts when I went, thinking I would change them often due to the heat and sweating and wouldn't be able to wash them very often... As it turns out, light gauzy cotton clothes are dirt cheap over there and I wound up trading or giving away most of my jeans and t-shirts. If I went again, I would only bring enough to get me through the first few days, and buy tunics, tops and dresses as I went along.

Do keep, however, a pair of jeans and one sweatshirt at the bottom of your backpack. You might need to dress a bit warmer on some ocasions, like evenings, long flights, etc.

Oh and please follow Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's advice: a towel is your best friend and the single most useful item a traveler can have. ;-)
posted by AnyGuelmann at 5:57 AM on February 27, 2008

Ziplocs of various sizes (little ones for small things, big ones for packing clothes) - keep things organized.

You can generally get clothes for cheap in thailand or vietnam, or probably wherever you first alight. Start out with a few pairs of stuff, but don't bring anything expensive. Bring stuff that's tossable, and buy the super-cheap stuff as you need it.

I bought flip-flops there and spent a month in them almost exclusively, no problem.

Bring reading material, something that is easy to read and you won't mind trading away when you're done - there'll be lots of other people wanting to do the same thing. Cards are good for boredom or getting to know other people, as is any sort of hobby thing like juggling balls or carryable musical instrument (though I've met a few people with guitars).

I've gone abroad before with only a change of clothes and camera, it's definitely doable, especially since I acquire a lot of things on the way.
posted by Jhoosier at 6:50 AM on February 27, 2008

Footwear, hat, sunglasses, ipod, camera. That's all you really need.
I would discard all the rest and just take footwear if it came right down to it. (I know: absurd. I'm just talking priorities. It can be hard to get sandals either of decent quality or - especially for guys - of the right size, depending on where you are.)
posted by peacay at 8:00 AM on February 27, 2008

For all that is good an holy, bring Immodium.
posted by spec80 at 8:50 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ok all youses, unpack the YANAD-but-still-militant knives now: bring a full scrip of doxycylene (tetracyclene), that's 10-12 days. If you get a chest infection that goes yellow and you're hacking up a lung, the local antibiotics aren't going to do. But if you start the course, finish the whole course. Also a scrip of cipro, in case of severe ohmigodI'mdying gut infection. And bring a camera, and a bathing suit. Seconding the jeans and sweatshirt, too.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 8:54 AM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: my tentative itinerary is:

6/9 Depart Chicago
6/10-6/11 Bangkok
6/12-6/15 Thai Islands – Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao – 4 days

- Ferry to Ko Samui, flight to Bankok

6/16- Bangkok – 1 days

- Flight from Bangkok to Chang Mai (~1hr 10min flight)

6/17-6/21 Chang Mai – 5 days

- Flight to Luang Prabang

6/22-6/25 – Luang Prabang – 4 days

- 6 to 8 hour bus to Vang Vieng

6/26-6/27 – Vang Vieng – 2 days

6/28 Vientiane – 1 Day

- Flight to Hanoi

6/29-7/2 – Hanoi/ Hanlong Bay – 4 days

- Flight to Danang (outside of Discover Asia Pass), ~45 minute bus to Hoi An ($3)

7/3-7/5 – Hoi An – 3 days

- Bus back to Danang, flight from Danang to Ho Chi Min City

7/6-7/7 Ho Chi Mihn City– 2 days

7/8 – Depart Ho Chi Mihn City
posted by nyu2 at 9:08 AM on February 27, 2008

The advice my friend gave me before I visited was to bring the least possible and make sure your bag is big. Everything is so inexpensive over there that half the fun is getting whatever you're missing. My checklist if I were to go a second time would be:

Swimming trunks
Shoes for hiking, but not hiking boots
malaria pills and that anti- diarrhea stuff (imodium?)
A bed sheet (sleeping bag would be excessive)
Comfy pants for the cold cold cold buses and airplanes
A light jacket for the same, or the odd cold evening or rain

Also, carry around fruit, and if people beg for stuff, give them fruit instead of cash.
posted by furtive at 9:46 AM on February 27, 2008

Also, Vientienne isn't that great, why aren't you going to Angkor Wat instead???? (you'd be best to budget 3 days there)
posted by furtive at 9:49 AM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: As much as I hated to have to cut cambodia and angkor wat out of our intinerary, I had to shorten our trip from a five weeks to a four weeks. I already feel like we are already streching to fit a TON and and though I'd rather save time and forgo a day in Vientiene, it was the most logical destination in order to fly from laos to hanoi. Any advice or suggestions on my itinerary (or ways I might be able to fit ankor wat into my trip) would be greatly appreciated as well!
posted by nyu2 at 10:20 AM on February 27, 2008

Hoi An is charming, but Angkor Wat is not to be missed. Spending that much time in SE Asia and not seeing Angkor Wat is like going to Northern Arizona and skipping the Grand Canyon. Seriously. If I were you I would skip Da Nang/Hoi An entirely and use that time at Angkor Wat. Ha Long Bay is worthwhile, though.
posted by ambrosia at 11:40 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Last year, I did one month through southern Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam. Definitely check out the One Bag site for general backpacking advice. For SE Asia specifically, I could not live without:

Chaco flip flops - Sturdier than you would think and invaluable in the heat.
Good, dark sunglasses
Good sunscreen - Not easy to find there.
2 long, light bottoms - For cultural modesty and covering up from the sun.
2 long-sleeved, light tops - Ditto. Either super thin cotton or sports nylon.
Laundry detergent packets - For washing clothes every other day.
US cash - if you decide to go to Cambodia

For what it's worth, my favourite stretch was the three days in Siem Reap/Angkor!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 11:56 AM on February 27, 2008

Last year I spent a couple of months in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Angor Wat/Siem Reap was the highlight for me, and I didn't even particularly want to go there. I don't want to hype it too much, but I really do recommend rearranging your itinerary so that you can prioritize Angor.

Vientienne has nothing going for it if you have a time crunch of any sort. Vang Vieng is lovely, but you could just fly in and out of Luang Prabang. I also think you could ditch those 5 days in Chang Mai in favor of some time in Angor, although I'm sure others will scream at me for such a suggestion.

I'm sure you have ample suggestions for your bag. My essentials would be malarone, immodium (but only to be used as a LAST resort), water purification tablets, a decent flashlight, a cotton sarong (double as towel and sleep sheet), swim trunks (you're a guy, right?), something to keep you warm on transportation, music, the Eagle Creek all terrain money belt that is actually a belt for a $100 or two in american cash and the copy of my passport (not a fanny pack type thing), a fanny pack type money belt as well, a decent lock probably, good deet. I think I could get buy for a month in SE Asia with that.

And here's my soapbox - even though you're packing light, don't be the stereotypical dirty smelly farang. Show people the proper respect by keeping reasonably clean and neat.

Enjoy - it'll be amazing!
posted by Amizu at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2008

Years ago I did five months in SE Asia with a backpack and the advice to not overpack is sound. Since that trip I've discovered Ex Officio underwear which are now an essential part of my travel kit. They may seem pricey but you could get away with just two pairs (three might be better)--they breath, resist odor, wash easily in a sink, and dry very quickly.
posted by donovan at 2:44 PM on February 27, 2008

Any advice or suggestions on my itinerary (or ways I might be able to fit ankor wat into my trip) would be greatly appreciated as well!

Personally, I'd skip Vietnam altogether (or maybe just tack on Hanoi / Ha Long Bay at the end, after Cambodia.

I've been to SEA a few times now, and the broad consensus that I keep hearing from travellers is that Vietnam is the worst of the lot.

Having said that, I've never been there, so I'm only reporting hearsay, but the thing with Vietnam is that is it's apparently fucked up by a few factors:

* It's been on the backpacker hitlist for much longer than Burma, Laos or Cambodia, so the locals are less friendly & more geared up towards scamming you & ripping you off;

* Dual pricing for foreigners is institutionalised (see above);

* It's impossible to get off 'the trail'. As people say, there are only two ways to do vietnam: north to south or south to north, along the one route (see point one, again).

FWIW, my order of preference is Burma > Laos > Cambodia > Thailand > Vietnam (leaving aside Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines & Indonesia from the ratings, as we're talking "mainland" SEA here).

Of course, this rating all depends on the extent to which you get annoyed at people treating you like a walking wallet, and the extent to which you want to be surrounded by, or avoid, the backpacker scene. An established trail has benefits if you want to take it easy, eg plenty of English-speaking agents, restauranteurs etc, easy booking of taxis & minibuses etc.

You will be treated as more of a cash cow on the trail, but at the end of the trip, you're probably only out of pocket a few tens of dollars more than if you went somewhere a bit less touristed, and your experience will probably have been a bit simpler & smoother. It's up to the individual, whatever they prefer.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:33 PM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I didn't see this listed yet:
....a pack towel (very lightweight & dries faster than a regular towel)

also, quick-drying clothes (esp. underwear) in general because you can hand wash them & have them dry overnight.
posted by hazel at 3:33 PM on February 27, 2008

strongly seconding the little travel towel. see the previous thread & the SMH backpacker blog, both linked above.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:45 PM on February 27, 2008

I've never been there, so I'm only reporting hearsay

Indeed. I disagree absolutely with everything you said.
This is not hearsay.

Go to fewer places and stay a bit longer. What's not to be missed, whichever countries/places you decide on, is slowing down and stopping to experience rather than rushing to see.
posted by peacay at 4:09 PM on February 27, 2008

absolutely? with everything? there's no dual pricing? no single route in vietnam? or do you dispute that about 90% of seasoned travellers i've ever spoken to have said "meh, leave it until last, and spend more time elsewhere"?
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:20 PM on February 27, 2008

Alright, I'll concede to your pebble examination and be clearer. I disagree with the negative characterisations of Vietnam. I don't disagree with your recall of the teeming multitudes you have interviewed. And although there's always competing priorities with a time sensitive trip, it's not an actual competition. Good times can be had all around.
posted by peacay at 4:54 PM on February 27, 2008

true, although i'm not sure what a pebble examination is, outside of a zen garden context.

plenty of people enjoy vietnam immensely. from a western perspective, all of these places are fascinating, even indonesia!
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:14 PM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: thanks for everyones input. I decided to strike the day in Vientiene. part of the reason I would like to do vietnam is that any people have highly recommend that I do the 5 day easyrider motorbike tour from Dalat to Hoi An. Id also very much want to see Hanoi and Ha long bay and Ho Chi Mihn City seemed like a good starting point to get start my trip North from Dalat to Hanoi. My new itinerary has 2 days in HCMC, 5 days on the road from dalat to Hoi An, 3 days in Hoi An, 3 days in Hanoi 2 in Ha long bay. 3 in Luang Prabang, and 2 in Vang Vieng. 4 in Chiang Mai, and 3 in Bangkok. (Had to sacrafice the Thai Islands). I know that this is diverging from my original quesiton, but I'd really appreciate any advice on m itinerary from anyone whos done South East Asia. I'd really like to fit in Cambodia and Angkor Wat, but am very reluctant to cut out anything else.
posted by nyu2 at 7:29 PM on February 27, 2008

I would see if you can fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap (Angkor) for 24 or 48 hours and forget about Bangkok. It's a city. Yes, it has its charms and adventure aplenty but the flight to Cambodia is fairly cheap ($200 return or thereabouts, if memory serves) and Angkor is amazing. But Bangkok is just a big city. I wonder which you'd more readily remember?

Having said that, I caution against being tooooo itinerary driven. It's very very easy to change to suit when you're there. You might want to cut Halong Bay to a single day trip perhaps. It's fantastic yes, but after you cruise around the islets for a few hours and savour the view, you'll be looking for a book or a game of cards. Staying on the island is no highlight (although o/nite on a boat was fun - that depends on your fellow boat travellers). You could probably cut off a day from Hoi An as well. (It's all: different strokes for different folks and so I think it's a little difficult to be conclusive about any of this in general; it's a matter of what you think you'll like -vs- what you experience when you get there). I'm a little jealous of the bike trip. I've done the Dalat-Nha Trang road which was glorious.
posted by peacay at 8:40 PM on February 27, 2008

My 2 p:

You could skip Vang Vieng. It's nothing but a ghost town populated by backpackers looking to go tubing and drink opium shakes and watch "Friends". I'm not kidding about that last part.

You could also skip HCMC. I found it depressingly "60s Communist". Hanoi is definitely worthwhile. Vientiane is not.

Do Not Skip Cambodia.

As far as packing light, here's what i took for a 6 month RTW trip (bearing in mind I also had several cold destinations):

- quick-dry towel
- umbrella (and we were in SEA during the rainy season - this was all I needed)
- clothesline
- bandana
- good sunglasses (polarized)
- fleece zip
- flip flops
- trail sandals
- trainers/sneakers
- bathing suit
- sarong
- hand sanitizer (you WILL use this! even if you think you wont!)
- sunscreen
- 3 cargo trousers (the kind that convert to long shorts), 1 skirt
- one tank top, one short sleeve, one long sleeve, one thin cardigan
- 6 undies
- 6 socks
- light jacket
- plasters/earplugs/ibuprofen/immodium/DEET/doxycycline/Rennie
- ipod and camera

however the single best thing i had on that trip was those plastic compression packing bags (the kind that shrink everything down when you squeeze the air out). they helped my backpack stay organised (i only used a 35L) and kept everything dry even in the wettest, mustiest conditions. a godsend when my pack got shoved into the underhold of a bus that then plowed through small lakes!

have fun!
posted by wayward vagabond at 12:56 AM on February 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

heh. Vang Vieng - so true. Banana pancake & pizza restaurants as far as the eye can see. Pure backpacker Disneyfest. It seemed an artificial town that was created solely for people to float in tubes down the river, with The Doors blasting from cheap PAs in ramshackle bars. Nice scenery, at least. Once again, it depends whether you want to be surrounded by 19yos trying to create a debauched version of summer camp, or would rather get into something a bit closer to actually engaging with the culture & people of the places you visit (I know, I know, don't pile on me).

Luang Prabang is pretty nice, but four days might be about two too many, unless you do a daytrip or two. it's surprisingly small, and you can see all the highlights of the town in about an afternoon on foot. nice place to relax for a few days, for a bit of a break from travelling.

that's a pretty good list by wayward vagabond, above. too many pairs of trousers, though.

also, a smallish padlock is handy. often in these countries you secure your room with a padlock through a bolt on the door. the guesthouse often supplies them, but you feel better with your own on the door.

also, a torch / flashlight. electricity is not always guaranteed.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:12 PM on February 28, 2008

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