How to choose travel clothes: a packlist for South East Asia

Ever packed exactly what you thought you needed for a trip, then realised when you got home that you didn’t wear half of the clothes you’d carefully picked out?  Me too.

Despite reading reams of packlists on blogs, I definitely didn’t choose the right clothes for our round the world adventure. Obviously (in retrospect) everyone’s ideal packlist will be different, which is why reading other people’s didn’t help me much. Getting the right things in my pack was a long process of trial and error.

Seriously, this is the mess of a situation we were in on the night before we left the UK at the start of our trip.

Not pretty, eh? Too much stuff, not the right stuff. Stuff everywhere. Panic.

So I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert packer. But I am sharing my trial-and-error improved packlist with you, so that maybe you can make new and interesting mistakes, instead of the same ones as me. N.B. This is a packlist for women because I am one. Most of the advice stands for men too, and generally I’d say that his and hers packlists are basically the same, but I’m not sure that’s quite true for South East Asia (see why below).

This is my packlist, I’m not saying everyone should pack the same. We’re all different. If you only want to pack a unitard and a cowboy hat, who am I to stop you.

What I hope is more useful than the specifics though, is the reasoning behind my choices. Over the course of our travels I’ve developed a much better idea of what makes a good travel wardrobe. This is the stuff I wish I’d known at the start of our trip, and this is what this post is really all about.

How to pack for South East Asia

A lot of this advice works for any destination — we’ve also travelled across Europe, Russia, the Far East and Australia in the first fourteen months of our round the world trip. I’m focusing on South East Asia in this post because it’s where we’ve spent the biggest chunk of time on the road so far, and because it’s a really popular backpacker destination, but it’s actually quite hard to pack for.

Or at least it seems like it is, given how many woefully ill-prepared backpackers there are stumbling round SE Asia. I’m looking at you, girl wandering round a Buddhist temple wearing Daisy Duke shorts.

So why is SE Asia tricky to pack for?  It’s bloody hot for a start, so you need clothes that are comfortable in 35 degree heat, but it’s also quite conservative in terms of dress, at least for women. (Damn patriarchy.) If you’re spending most of your time on the beach or in backpacker bars then you might be fine with a pack full of bikinis and short shorts, but if you want to explore outside the tourist zones you’ll probably want a more versatile wardrobe.

When in Rome, dress as the Romans do

You should totally pack a toga.

I try to more or less conform to local dress customs when I’m travelling. I don’t mean wearing exactly what the locals wear, but I do mean covering up roughly as much as they do. Conforming to local norms means drawing less attention to yourself, and also I think it’s just polite.

What’s the point of potentially offending people with your clothing (or lack thereof)? I think you’re much more likely to be welcomed if you at least try and fit in a bit. People are more likely to talk to you, invite you into their homes, all the good stuff, if they’re not busy being shocked by your outfit. You’ll seem more approachable if you look less different.

The other thing to think about in South East Asia is temple and mosque dress codes.  Some of the most intriguing and beautiful places to visit are working places of worship (hello, multi storey walk-through Buddha full of life-size dioramas of hell), and if you want to go in you should respect the rules. In a Buddhist temple you need to cover your shoulders, chest and back, and your legs down to your knees. In mosques, all that plus the rest of your legs, and your head and hair if you’re female.

Be practical, but not too practical

All of the things that ended up staying in my wardrobe made the cut because they’re compact, light, durable enough to cope with lots of wear and washing, and OK to be worn straight out of my pack. If you’re travelling on a budget you’re not going to have access to an iron, and you probably won’t be able to hang your clothes up. And anything too thick or heavy will likely be too hot to wear in South East Asia, a pain to carry around, and a nightmare to get dry.

A side note on laundry: at the start of our trip we did a lot of hand washing, but in SE Asia we started having laundry done because it’s so cheap. Drying time is an issue either way though — you don’t want to have to leave while your clothes are still damp, and then have them getting smelly in your backpack all day while you travel.

Having said that, I wouldn’t focus too much on buying special clothes for travelling. You might find, like I did, that you don’t feel comfortable in them and you just want your normal clothes. I bought a couple of special technical items for our trip, and I’ve since given away both because I thought I looked like a dork in them. The stuff I’ve ended up with is a mix of things that were in my wardrobe anyway (including some hiking clothes) and bits I’ve picked up along the way.

Don’t sweat your packing too much, you can refine as you go if you have to. I’ve swapped things out a lot along the way, as I realised what I actually needed, and as the weather and my needs changed. Lots of hostels have charity collections for getting rid of unwanted clothes, and you can buy clothes anywhere if you need them.

My South East Asia wardrobe

This is my trial-and-error refined wardrobe for South East Asia, where we spent 9 months or so in 2016.

  • Two pairs of trousers
  • Two pairs of shorts
  • Three T-shirts
  • Smart top
  • Two dresses
  • Lightweight merino sweater
  • Exercise outfit
  • Bikini
  • Sarong
  • Pyjamas
  • Six pairs of undies
  • Two bras
  • Two pairs of socks
  • Three pairs of shoes
  • Rain jacket

You may notice there’s kind of a colour theme. This was entirely accidental, I have a problem with inadvertently buying everything in blue and not realising until I get home. The internet will happily tell you to pick co-ordinating colours for a capsule wardrobe. I really don’t think you should worry about this. It’s your party, clash if you want to.

For a shorter trip you could definitely manage with fewer items than this. But for a long trip I found this wardrobe to be about the right size so that I didn’t get bored, and didn’t have to do laundry too often. My wardrobe for cold weather in Russia, Japan and China was smaller than this, because warm clothes take up more space, and cold weather = less sweating. I posted a lot of cold weather clothes from Vietnam to Australia at the start of our time in SE Asia, and used the space this created to add some extra hot weather items. Posting stuff is not that expensive, and will save you lugging around things that you’re not using for months on end.

The packlist break-down

If you have no interest in reading a blow-by-blow account of what’s in my wardrobe (what’s the matter with you?) you can skip to the end for the punchline of my packing wisdom.

1) Two pairs of trousers

One thin full length pair, one shorter pair (both 100% cotton). The long pair are great for keeping mosquitoes off at night, and OK for hiking if I need to cover my legs up (leeches, eww). Fancy technical trousers would be better for hiking, but I don’t think it’s worth carrying an extra pair just for this. I bought these long trousers in Thailand years ago, and they used to be smart, but they’ve ripped and been sewn them up a couple of times so they’re getting a bit shabby and delicate. (Update: I tried dancing to Cotton Eye Joe in them. Now I have new trousers.)

 I live in my short trousers, which I bought in a border town in southern Thailand. They’re loose and comfortable in the heat, less hot than long trousers, but satisfy temple dress codes. They’re comfortable enough to sit in for hours, so I always wear them on long bus journeys. They also have huge pockets which fit all manner of stuff in them, even my kindle.

2) Two pairs of shorts

One short pair (loose, lightweight synthetic fabric), one knee length pair (quick drying technical fabric). The pair which cover my knees are OK in more conservative countries, and they’re for hiking mostly. In much of SE Asia women don’t wear shorts, so I generally didn’t either. I didn’t pick up the short pair until we were in Malaysia, where the (non-Muslim) local women often wear short shorts, so I felt OK doing so too. Vietnam and parts of Thailand are also generally fine for wearing short shorts, though most locals won’t wear them in day time because they don’t want a tan.

3) Three T-shirts

I’d normally pack fewer T-shirts, but in sweaty SE Asia three seemed about right. I favour T-shirts over vests because they make sunburn less likely, fit in better with local dress in most places, and mean you don’t have to put on extra clothes to visit a temple.

4) Smart top

I like having something a bit smarter to wear to go a nice restaurants, or to get a visa at an embassy.

This top is perfect because it’s loose and light, and covers just enough of my shoulders and chest to not attract attention in more traditional places. I basically lived in this in the hottest weather in April and May, it’s so comfortable.

5) Two dresses

Dresses are my favourite thing to wear in really hot weather. This flowery one was perfect for SE Asia — it’s really light, cool fabric, the creases fall out of it in minutes when you put it on, it’s loose enough to be comfortable in the heat, and it covers enough to wear almost anywhere without standing out too much.

My other (stripy) dress doesn’t cover my shoulders, so it’s not ideal in some places, but it’s even cooler in the heat. I mostly wore it in hostels, on the beach, in touristy restaurant/bar areas, and in big cities, where dress codes are less modest.

6) Lightweight merino sweater

My only jumper is a thin merino top that I use for hiking at home. Merino is pretty awesome — it will keep you warm when it’s cold, but you won’t bake in it when it’s hot. It also doesn’t seem to get smelly very quickly, and it dries super fast.

This top is warm enough to wear in freezing air-conditioned buses or up mountains, but also cool enough to wear as sun protection on really hot days (sometimes sunscreen alone isn’t enough for me, thanks Irish ancestry). I also wore it a lot in the evenings as mosquito protection.

7) Exercise outfit

Top and running shorts (both quick drying technical fabric). I brought these for hiking and running, but I seem to have given up running (too hot, hurts my knees) and ended up using the top for our cycling adventure from Hanoi to Bangkok instead. At home I hike in these shorts, but I pretty much only wore them for swimming in SE Asia because they’re too short for local customs in Cambodia and Myanmar, where we did most of our hiking. I could probably do without them really, but I expect I’ll use them more in Australia and NZ, so I’ve held on to them.

8) Bikini

In most of South East Asia the local women swim in their clothes, or a sarong wrapped round as a dress. I do too unless there’s nobody around, we’re at a hotel swimming pool, or on a touristy beach where it’s normal to wear a bikini. I think it’s more respectful to observe this custom up to a point, and doing so means drawing less attention to yourself. I used my bikini a lot in Malaysia (plenty of tourist beaches and pools), a little in Myanmar on deserted beaches, and a fair bit in Vietnam where locals often wear swimwear.

9) Sarong

This has so many uses: swimming in (see above), a dress or skirt on the beach, something to sit or lie on, an extra towel if my regular one is wet or dirty, a very light sheet on hot nights, to cover my shoulders or legs in Buddhist temples, to cover my head in mosques, to wear over my head or shoulders as a sun shade, as a cape for super-hero impressions…

10) Pyjamas

We sleep in dorms a lot. Most guys sleep in their pants, but I feel more comfortable in pyjamas, especially when it’s too hot to sleep under a cover. (Oh look, the patriarchy again.) And when you’re away for months on end, it’s kind of nice and homey to sleep in pyjamas. At the start of our trip I just wore leggings (which also double as sportswear) and one of my T-shirts as PJs. I bought pyjama bottoms in Vietnam, when it got too warm to wear leggings at night. The top is a vest I used to wear for day time, but it got too ratty.

11) Six pairs of undies

Six pairs is enough if you don’t mind hand washing them as and when. If you want to rely on doing laundry frequently enough without needing to hand wash, bring more. I’m always running out of pants before I need other laundry doing. Also you will lose them. Like, all the time. I have no idea why.

12) Two pairs of socks

One sports pair for hiking, one comfy pair for wearing when it’s cold. Day to day I always wore sandals in SE Asia because shoes are too hot, so I rarely used my socks. I almost never wore the long ones, but they are nice to have if you’re sleeping at altitude, or when the air-con on a bus or train is particularly arctic.

13) Two bras

One ordinary, one sports. As well as for hiking and biking, I wear the sports one on night transport and other long journeys, so I’m not getting dug in the back by hooks when I sleep. It also doubles as a second bikini top, and my bikini top doubles as an extra bra.

14) Three pairs of shoes

Hiking shoes, sandals and flip-flops.  My hiking shoes are sturdy waterproof ones, because I also used them in the snow in Russia, but for SE Asia a lightweight breathable pair would be better really. Arthur has trail running shoes, and I think these are the best option — you can get light ones that dry quickly, and they have proper grip so you can use them in mud and in the mountains.

I don’t really need flip-flops as well as sandals, but I had to replace my old broken sandals in Myanmar, and flip-flops were all I could find. I eventually replaced the cork sandals that I had at the start of our trip with Teva ones, which have been great — they can get wet, they dry quickly, they don’t look too terrible with a dress, and they won’t fall off your feet when you’re swimming or riding a motorbike. I once met a guy who was convinced that everyone who wore Teva’s was Israeli though. I’m not sure if that’s a selling point or not.

15) Rain jacket

A lot of the time it’s too hot to bother with a rain jacket in SE Asia, but monsoon weather can be cold, and sometimes the rain is so heavy you need something to protect you on the dash to the nearest beer/coffee.

I mostly wore my jacket as rain and/or wind protection while riding motorbikes, and in the mountains, where it’s much cooler. I love this jacket because it’s super light, and packs really small, but it’s also sturdy and fully waterproof. (I heart taped seams!)

If in doubt, leave it out

This lot packs down very small, which is really important for me. I like to be able to carry my bag easily (revolutionary, I know). Also I want it to fit into luggage racks and under bus seats so I can use local buses comfortably — they rarely have luggage storage under the bus, or much space between the seats. Here are the seats on a bus we took in Myanmar. Yay leg room.

In the end, that’s the main thing I’ve learnt about packing from fourteen months of travel.

BRING LESS SHIT. (Sorry grandma.)

Don’t be the grumpy, sweaty person who always arrives at a new place in a bad mood because they’re tired from hauling their stuff, and they got ripped off by a dodgy taxi, because they couldn’t walk a couple of kilometres with their massive heavy backpack. That person is not having fun, no matter how cute the seven pairs of shoes they packed are.

I used a 36 litre backpack plus a small shoulder bag on our trip, and this was plenty to carry.  Maybe too much.

Seriously, bring less. Pile up all the stuff you think you want to pack, and then get brutal with it. There’s probably loads of things you don’t really need in there. I can’t tell you exactly what to pack — you know what you really really need, so just bring that. Again, you can always add to it along the way if you need to.

Bring only what you need, bring only things that are vaguely practical, bring only things that you will actually wear.

Your back and your budget will thank you. Taxi drivers might not.

Any packing tips to add? Anything you wouldn’t bring, or can’t live without? Get involved in the comments!

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