Packing for Southeast Asia
- Any prescription medication you need—First and foremost on our list is to bring as much prescription medications you will need for the entire duration of your trip. While reputable hospitals can be expected to dispense authentic medications, it is estimated more than 70% of all medications in Southeast Asia are counterfeit, and their quality may not be what you require.
- Passport and two photocopies—Well, the passport goes without saying! We also recommend you travel with two photocopies, kept separately from one another, and then a third left at home with a responsible friend or relative. In case you lose your passport, heaven forbid, this will facilitate getting a new one with the consulate. We also suggest making copies of your visas when you have a chance and also carrying those separately.
- Debit Cards and Cash—We suggest you always keep at least $200 in cash, preferably $100 in one place and $100 in another, as emergency funds in case something happens—you lose your wallet running from a pack of monkeys or, more likely, to a Hanoi pickpocket. After getting robbed twice within a month last year, we now keep $500 stashed away—enough for at least two weeks while we make arrangements for Western Union transfers by family with access to our accounts. We are a big believer in money belts—the ones that are actual belts, not that go inside your pants. Robbers know to look under your shirt for money—not in the belt holding up your pants. Let's hope sharing this does not change that! Make sure you don't carry all your credit cards with you at one time—we recommend having two debit cards and at least two credit cards, and you never carry both credit or debit cards with you at one time. Also, be sure to inform your bank and credit card companies of your travel dates to ensure your cards don't get locked down!
- Light colored clothing—Dark colors attract mosquitoes, as well as being hotter. We suggest light colored clothing and light materials, like cotton or linen. Highly discouraged are blue jeans which are heavy and bulkly to pack and slow-drying. Also, we highly recommend more conservative than more revealing clothing especially if you plan to travel in Muslim or rural areas. Miniskirts may fly in Bangkok, but in Rantakiri or Kota Bharu they will be offensive and no doubt attract undue attention.
- Long socks—While sandals are the footwear of choice with many a TEVA-tread traveler prowling the streets and paths of Southeast Asia, the truth is at an outdoor (and many indoor) restaurants your feet will be an exposed feast below the table for potentially malaria or dengue carrying mosquitoes, not to mention the simple irritation caused by having an itchy bug bite on your big toe. For jungle trekking, these can also help prevent leaches from latching on.
- Good walking shoes—No matter whether you will be jungle trekking in steamy Taman Negara or bargain hunting in an air-conditioned ultra-modern mall, comfortable, light and breathable footwear is a must. We also suggest something easy to slip on an off in case you visit homes, temples or mosques where footwear should be removed before entry. We prefer a pair of walking/hiking shoes and a pair of sandals so we can choose which is best when we go out.
- Hat with a brim—Keeping the sun out of your eyes, off your face and ears, a hat is a great item to travel with.
- Sunscreen—Depending on whether you will be an urban explorer or a beach bum, your sunscreen needs may differ. Because we spend almost all of our time in the tropics, we use a SPF 15 face cream (Oxy brand) to reduce sun damage to our face. If you will be on the beach, we recommend at least an SPF 30. While sun sensitivity varies, a few hours in the Southeast Asian sun will burn most Caucasians without some sun protection. If you are snorkeling, this is especially important as the clear waters will amplify the sun's effects, and being face down in the water for three or four hours will also ensure you don't sleep on your back for a week.
- Extra eye wear and contact solution—In case you wear glasses, it is always a good idea to have a spare pair when you travel. If you wear contacts, it is a good idea to bring at least a container of contact solution in your checked luggage. It can be difficult to find in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, and can be in Indonesia outside major cities. In Thailand and Malaysia, you should not have any difficulty finding it, though.
- Sunglasses—Protect your eyes from the harsh rays—just ensure that your sunglasses offer UV protection—otherwise, they are just opening your pupils for more damaging UV rays.
- Mosquito repellent—Brands like Off are readily available in Southeast Asia in department stores and elsewhere. When we travel, though, we generally like to show up with a can just in case we have difficulty finding it before our first plunge into the jungle or a home-stay without window screens and holes in the mosquito netting. While many people swear by “natural repellents,” we've had no luck with anything but those containing DEET. Another option is clothing with a Permethrin-based repellent "built in," but you can also buy treatments for clothing. Usually, this repellent lasts for around 25 washes and is an alternative to directly applying repellents. We do not regularly use mosquito repellents, however—only when there is really a need for it, such as camping, hiking in malaria-invested regions, or when sleeping in less-than-optimum conditions for mosquito protection. Long socks and light colored clothing can go a long way in preventing bites—that is the best medicine of all. Some mosquito-borne diseases are preventable with medication, like malaria, but for others, like dengue, there is neither vaccine nor prophylactics—the only way to be sure to prevent dengue is to avoid mosquito bites.
- Malaria Medication?--There are three questions you have to ask yourself here: (1) Do I need malaria medication, (2) If so, what kind, and (3) Do I get it at home or once I am overseas.
(1) In the spirit of full disclosure, we stopped taking malaria prophylactics several years ago. That is mostly because we are completely scatter-brained and would forget to take it at days at a time, meaning it wasn't doing what it should—protecting us from a disease that kills thousands of people every year. Malaria is no laughing matter, and us not taking malaria prophylactics is us taking our lives into our own hands. We must recommend that all travelers in areas with active malaria outbreaks take these medications and try to make a better effort than we to actually take this rather expensive medication.
(2) Depending on where you are, some medicines, like the old classic, quinine, are no longer effective. The Center for Disease Control has additional information on how to choose a malaria medication. Additionally, the CDC Malaria Map Application is an interactive map which provides information on malaria endemicity throughout the world. Users can search or browse countries, provinces, cities, and place names, get information about malaria in that particular location, and see recommended medications for malaria prevention for that area.
(3) Finally, if you calendar works out, you may be able to save yourself several hundred dollars by getting your malaria medication overseas—but you have to watch out for counterfeit drugs or simply a lack of availability. See our “Getting Malaria Medication in Southeast Asia” article for more information about getting this medication once you are already in Southeast Asia.
- Fiber Supplement—Rice and meat don't have much fiber, and unless you really work on your menu choices, you will not get much fiber in a typical Southeast Asian diet. Fiber supplement pills are lighter and less bulky than psyllium husk drinks, but whatever you do with, these will ensure you do go and with a lot less discomfort. They can also help to make loose stools more solid and soften very hard stools.
- Knife—One of our basic recommendations is to travel with a knife. From peeling fruit to cutting rope, it is a handy tool to have. Just remember when traveling by air to put it in your checked luggage. One of us had a very expensive Case brand knife confiscated in Ho Chi Minh's airport when we forgot it in our backpack.
- Cell Phone and Charger—SIM cards are easily purchased throughout Southeast Asia, and their rates usually are far better than using your domestic plan abroad or even purchasing and using phone cards to use from pay phones or your hotel. If your phone is locked, often times cell phone shops can unlock them for you.
- Universal Adapter—We recommend a universal plug-in adapter. Electrical plugs vary through Southeast Asia, but all run on 220 volts. A single universal adapter will ensure your electronics will have power no matter where you go, but double-check to ensure they are all duel voltage. Almost all computer adapters today are as well as most electrical shavers.
- Gallon Ziplock bags—We have found these have a million uses from packing away your stinking dirty clothes to ensuring your dry ones stay that way or your wet ones don't soak your dry ones. Heavy-duty freezer bags are best.
- Toiletries—Most Western brands are available in major cities throughout Southeast Asia, but you might want to pack your favorite brands. We've tried to include items in order of importance--higher on the list, more likely you will want to bring with you. It is always good to have the basics on arrival so you spend your first days exploring the sites rather than trying to find your brand of toothpaste. Your packed toiletries should probably include:
- Tampons--You will not have trouble finding tampons in larger cities, but the pad is generally preferred throughout Southeast Asia and tampons viewed suspiciously. Your favorite brand/size/applicator might not, however, be available.
- Condoms--Traveling alone or with a partner, if you think you may be sexually active, be prepared. You may not find the brand, quality or size you need. Just be aware, though, that the high heat in Southeast Asia can also degrade condoms, so bring fresh ones with you and unless you know you will be needing one (or a dozen) that night, leave them packed in your things as your body heat can also have an ill-effect on them.
- Any face creams, pimple gels, et cetera you might use
- Razor or razor blades—Gillette razor blades are easily found—others you might not find at all. If you use an electrical razor, make sure it can operate on 220 voltage.
- Shaving cream
- Nail clippers
- Deodorant—and for goodness sakes, please use it. We've slept too many nights in dorms in Singapore and elsewhere with travelers “roughing it,” meaning that they ignored the shower facilities and were too lazy to wash their clothes and too inconsiderate to use deodorant. We highly recommend those with silver ions like Nivea, a brand widely available throughout Southeast Asia
- Other items--We also suggest a hotel bar of soap and a small bottle of shampoo as in cheaper hostels these often will not be provided.
25. Safety Pins--Another small miracle, a dozen or so safety pins take up hardly any room but can come in very, very handy from a quick repair to a backpack tear, fix an embarrassing zipper malfunction, or a manifold of other unexpected uses.
26. First Aid Kit—One of our editors once wrecked a motorcycle in rural Indonesia with no doctor available for a couple of days. He thinks his rapid first-aid from his own kit may have saved his foot. Our first aid kit for Southeast Asia contains the following and does not take up too much room, but it is better to have it unnecessarily than need it and not have it:
- Plastic bandages—We carry regular “Bandaid” size bandages, as well as butterfly bandages and 2”x”3” bandages. We carry about a dozen of each.
- Anti-bacterial cream— This is very important for treating coral cuts, minor nicks, scrapes and non-threatening cuts. Remember “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” where the main character dies on safari after getting a thorn stuck in him that comes infected before they can get him out? Yeah—we think about that a lot.
- Benadryl—Sometimes we encounter new things. Sometimes, we are allergic to them and never knew (or could know) beforehand. We recommend Benadryl, a histamine-blocker, as an immediately medication in case you begin having an allergic reaction—swelling, shortness of breath, rash, et cetera. Take a large dose of Benadryl and seek immediate medical attention, particularly if the neck and face are swelling or if there is any shortness of breath or other difficulties in breathing.
- Antihistamine cream—Mainly for comfort, this can be a godsend after a night with bedbugs or mosquitoes. It prevents itching and can sometimes lessen the severity of local swelling, discoloration, and rashes.
- Tylenol—As a pain reliever, but mostly to combat fever, Tylenol is considered a miracle cure in less-developed Southeast Asia. We often bring 5-10 bottles to distribute to friends and family anytime we come to Southeast Asia, and we always have it in our first-aid pack.
- Isopropyl alcohol or other sanitizer—You need some sanitizer that you can use to wash out cuts and clean wounds. We suggest isopropyl alcohol.
- Ace Bandage—We recommend an Ace bandage (an elastic bandage) to use in case of a sprain or to compress a wound. If you are trekking or doing other adventurous outings this is a great item to have in case of injury.
- Tiger Balm—Omnipresent in Southeast Asia, and widely used as a panacea, it is great for sprains, sore muscles, and as a vapor rub in case of congestion or cold. We also highly recommend the menthol aerosol sprays available, like Moov, for sprains.
- Laxative—Sometimes (particularly if you don't take our advice and take a fiber supplement) you just can't go, which can mean lot nights squatting over a hole in the bathroom floor in more than mild discomfort. We suggest you bring laxative pills with you in case you experience constipation from the change in diet and fiber intake.
- Anti-diarrhea medication—A glib novice traveler once told one of us, when we were providing her our recommended first aid pack, that she'd never take anti-diarrhea medication like Imodium because “your body is trying to rid itself of something that is hurting it.”
Tell that to the traveler who just woke up running to the bathroom two hours before a six hour bus ride to Chang Mai.
- 1 Tablespoon Sugar1/2 Teaspoon Table SaltJuice of one or two limes (or lemon)12 ounces waterIf sick, drink a glass of this concoction after each bowel movement, and if possible, sip on it in case you are throwing up. You might not be able to keep it all down, but what you can will help.
For more tips on how to stay healthy in Southeast Asia, see "Don't Drink the Water."