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Must-Have Travel Gear for Backpacking Southeast Asia

What to Pack and What to Leave Behind

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sunset on otres beach Cambodia

Sunset on Otres Beach, Cambodia

© Lauren Juliff

If you're planning on heading to Southeast Asia for the first time, it can be hard to know what to pack. Unfortunately, the thousands of packing lists available online don't make it any easier and often offer conflicting advice -- should you take jeans or not? Do you need a laptop? What about a first aid kit? Should you bring a backpack or a suitcase? Do you need hiking boots?

Whether you're planning on lounging on the beaches of Southern Thailand, searching for orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo, exploring the temples of Angkor or partying on a cruise around Halong Bay, we have the perfect recommendations for you.

Choosing a Backpack

First things first, suitcases are incredibly impractical for Southeast Asia and you shouldn't even consider taking one. The streets are frequently unpaved, full of potholes and many of the islands don't even have roads.

You'll need to bring a backpack, and the smaller the better. You should aim for a size between 40 and 60 liters and definitely no larger. While it may seem that bigger is better, remember that you'll need to carry it on your back, sometimes for an hour or more, in an extremely hot and humid climate.

A small backpack will therefore remove the temptation to overpack. There's no need to worry about forgetting something important either -- Southeast Asia is incredibly cheap so anything that you do forget can be easily replaced at a fraction of the cost.

As for which type of backpack you need? A front-loading backpack will save on packing time and is easier to keep organized, a lockable backpack will help deter thieves and it would be great if you could find one that's waterproof -- especially if you're going to be travelling in the rainy season.

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Clothing

Not many places in Southeast Asia ever get cold so you'll want the majority of your backpack to contain light clothes, preferably made of cotton. Try to choose neutral colors so that you can mix and match and maximize your number of outfits. You don't need jeans (they're heavy, bulky and take hours to dry) but pack some lightweight pants for any chilly evenings or temple visits. If you're female, you'll need to pack a shawl to cover your shoulders as well.

For footwear, you can get by with just flip-flops or sandals most of the time but pack some light hiking shoes if you plan on doing a lot of walking.

Consider getting a microfiber towel as these can be huge space savers and are very quick to dry. A silk sleeping bag liner won't be used much as guesthouses in Southeast Asia are typically clean and free of bed bugs. However, it's still a good idea to carry one in case you end up staying somewhere that's a little dirty.

Again, clothes can be bought and replaced for a couple of dollars in Southeast Asia so don't feel like you need to pack your entire closet for every possible occasion.

Medicine

Most medicines can be bought over the counter in Southeast Asia - including antibiotics and birth control pills, so you don't need to worry about bringing an enormous first aid kit. Pack some Tylenol, Imodium and Dramamine (and a general purpose antibiotic if your doctor will give you one) to start with and replace them as they run out.

Make sure to pick up some anti-malarial tablets before you leave, as you'll often need to start taking these before you arrive. You should also pack some insect repellent and sunscreen for your first few days.

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Technology

Laptop: Internet cafes in Southeast Asia are in rapid decline so if you plan on keeping in touch with friends and family, you'll need to bring a laptop. Look for one that's as small and light as you can get away with, especially if you'll only be using it for email, Facebook and to watch movies. Try to get a laptop that has good battery life as well as an SD card slot for uploading photos. We recommend choosing either the MacBook Air or the Acer Aspire One.

Camera: Consider using a Micro 4/3 camera, such as the Olympus PEN E-PL5, which gives you SLR quality photos from a camera the size of a compact.

E-reader: If you're planning on doing a lot of reading on the road then a Kindle Keyboard 3G is a worthwhile investment. The e-ink screen eliminates glare, so you'll easily be able to read a book while sunbathing on the beaches in Cambodia. If you get the Keyboard 3G version, you'll be able to get online for free almost anywhere in the world!

Phone: If you're going to be travelling in Southeast Asia, we'd suggest getting an unlocked phone and picking up local prepaid SIM cards as you travel. These SIM cards are the cheapest option for calls, texts and cellular data and are available in most grocery stores. If you don't have an unlocked phone, then opt for making phone calls using Skype over Wi-Fi.

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