Pack your bags

waiting at the border

Two years ago I traveled in SE Asia for just under three months. The topic of what to bring comes up often enough that I thought I’d write a post about it, if only for my easy reference in the future.

I was nudged to write this by a friend who asked: If you could only bring three things with you on a trip, what would they be? My quick, flip answer was: money, a camera and a toothbrush. But writing this just now, I replaced toothbrush with shoes. Oh, how fickle a packer I am! When I was preparing to go on my trip, a friend sent me an extensive packing list. The picture above shows me with my luggage: a medium-sized internal frame backpack as well as a small daypack on the ground, plus my moneybag and camera around my shoulder. And you should know I am a towering five feet one inches tall, so that should give you some idea of the size of my pack. I think it weighed about 15 pounds when I left the US. I did end up buying another tote halfway through my trip to carry all the things I ended up buying (pounds of pepper in Kampot!). If I had to do it over again, I would have left the books behind and probably tried to just load them all on an e-reader. Books are HEAVY!

Here is her list, complete with notes:

1) bug spray: I brought the kind that you use on your body (DEET), it’s only available intermittently around where I was in Asia, and I found it was worth it. I also sprayed my bag and clothes with the kind you only use on clothes (premetherin or something) before I left, but did not bring that with me. Chemicals like this are a very personal decision, of course.

2) hand sanitizer: I only brought a small bottle, and I found it to be something I was glad I had with me for emergencies (I don’t ever use it in the states, but when there’s no soap or water, I was glad I had it). This is something that is again, not widely available and I wished I had brought two or three small bottles.

3) sunscreen: (my friend is very fair and this was a requirement for her) I did bring one tube and generally tried to use clothes and hats to block the sun.

4) bags: I brought two bags: a big backpack with all my stuff and a smaller daypack. I checked the big bag. When I was over there and needed to wear both I could wear the daypack on my front. My only regret is that I only had a small daypack and I wished I had brought a slightly larger one to carry a warm shirt and food and such for the whole day.

5) Here is what I brought in my small daypack on the plane

  • Book
  • Water bottle (empty)
  • Sandwich
  • Luna bar
  • Folder of papers
    • o Flight Confirmations
    • o Insurance Policy Confirmation
    • o Hotel Confirmations
    • o Copy of passport
    • o Copy of visas
    • o Traveler’s check info
    • o Credit/Debit Card info + emergency contact
    • o Additional passport photos
    • o Copy of yellow fever vaccination
    • o Family addresses
    • o Country Info
  • – iPod
  • – Camera
  • – Memory cards + extra battery
  • – Sudoku book
  • – Pen and pencil
  • – Small journal
  • – Hand sanitizer
  • – Earplugs (I didn’t end up using these, but other people swear by them)
  • – Lock

6) luggage locks: I had these for both my bags and was glad I did. I have the TSA-approved kind, and I used combo ones instead of keys so I didn’t have to worry about keeping track of keys. I locked my bag up whenever I left my room for the day, just so I wouldn’t have to think about it.

7) books: I was worried about having enough to read, so I brought three books. I found that I needn’t have worried — all of the hostels and most of the hotels I went to had book shelves where you could leave/take books (most of which were English) and I found that a fun part of meeting people was exchanging books with them. Bangkok has lots of used English books, but they all cost $6-$12.

8) money belt: I wore my money belt every day and found that it gave me great piece of mind. Each day I put about $10 in each of my pockets (my pants had about four pockets) so even if I got pickpocketed, I would only lose $10 at a time. In crowded areas I wore my daypack (with my camera and such) on my front and had my backpack locked. I found I didn’t worry at all about theft given those precautions.

9) chargers: I brought a universal charger and an electric charger for my iPod and camera. I also brought an extra camera battery, which was great because I never ran out of batteries on a long day with lots of sites. Highly recommend having an extra camera battery (assuming your camera doesn’t just use AA batteries or something) and charging them both each night when possible.

10) Here is what I had in my big pack:

  • Raincoat
  • 1 pair trekking pants
  • 1 pair basketball shorts
  • Flip-flops
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Insect repellant
  • Deodorant
  • Contacts
  • Contact Lens Solution + case
  • Glasses + case
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Band-Aids
  • Blister packs
  • Painkillers?
  • Hair stuff
  • Wet wipes
  • Camera battery charger
  • Camera cord
  • Short Ipod USB cord
  • Adapter (serves as ipod charger)
  • Headlamp (batteries separate)
  • Socks (three pair)
  • Underwear (three pair)
  • Shirts (under armour and one I can sleep in / leave there)
  •  bras
  • Antibiotics
  • Malaria meds
  • Ibuprofen
  • Immodium
  • Period supplies
  • qtips
  • Lock
  • Duct tape
  • Big plastic Ziploc bags
  • Small Ziploc bags
  • Cable lock

11) I put everything in my bag in various sizes of ziploc bags. This was a lifesaver. There were several times where I was caught in downpours with other folks and their clothes in their bag would all get soaked, which was a hassle. I also kept my camera and memory cards in a little ziploc bag in my daypack, which again, gave me piece of mind.

12) I wrapped about 6 feet of duct tape around my pen and found it VERY helpful to have (I think I used it to fix a friend’s poncho, a tv, and a backpack during the trip).

13) the cable lock helped give me peace of mind when I was asleep in a place accessible to others (communal hostel rooms, trains)

14) I recommend a headlamp or a flashlight of some kind, for sure.

15) wet wipes are another item I never use here but found them incredibly helpful to have there – especially when you sit down to eat with your hands and realize that your hands are dirty and there’s no sink available. They have small packages so you don’t have to get the big tubs, and again, I found them to be very nice to have.

16) My number one travel lesson is the fewer shoes the better. Shoes are super heavy and hard to leave behind. I only had one pair that was good for trekking and walking around, and I had a pair of flip flops that worked for hot weather and in the shower. those two suited me just fine.

17) clothes: I was really happy I had clothes that were quick drying because I could wash them at night and they would be dry by the next day or certainly by one day after. The more of your clothes that are quick drying, the easier to wash yourself frequently and the fewer overall clothes you have to bring. I think I ended up using shampoo or something to wash them with, but REI has travel detergent that could also work. I also found that small packets of laundry detergent were pretty available locally.

While over there I ended up buying or renting lots of items that I didn’t want to carry around for two months (umbrella, poncho, jacket, ski gloves, etc.). I also bought t-shirts as souvenirs, which is why I didn’t bring over many shirts.

I also had to buy more period supplies while over there, which was fine (I got them at the Bangkok airport), but if you are particular, you might as well bring them yourself – they’re pretty light and will only cost more over there anyway.

I didn’t bring a towel because I don’t swim and most of the places I stayed at had towels (or you could rent them).

Backing up pictures: I kept my memory cards in my money belt and burned them to CDs whenever I could, which I kept in my suitcase. You’ll probably upload them or something (internet cafes are pretty available) so you should be set on this 😉

Some of these items didn’t apply to me (e.g. contact/glasses) and some I chose not to bring (e.g. luggage locks since I didn’t plan on staying in hostels). I found this a fantastic master list from which to plan and brainstorm. Also, no one I ran into was backing up their pictures onto CDs. There were too many issues with getting viruses from the computers in the internet cafes. I never backed up my memory cards and just consider myself lucky that they weren’t stolen or corrupted/damaged.

I also didn’t wear a money belt, but that just comes down to your comfort level and also the environment. SE Asia is incredibly safe, and mostly you just have to watch out for being conned out of your money. If you know what to watch out for, it’s easy enough to avoid.

One thing she didn’t mention that a friend gave me that came in very handy was a small book, the size of a passport, with pictures of hundreds of things: Point It: Traveler’s Language Kit. I could just point to what I needed, and in a handful of cases, it was exactly the right tool for communicating.

If you have traveled for an extended period of time, I’d love to hear your strategies for packing. What do you think is essential and what do you leave behind?

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3 thoughts on “Pack your bags

  1. The Good Luck Duck

    No towel?!? Well, that may be fine for SE Asia, but it will never do for The Galaxy.

    I can never predict what I will enjoy reading (I’m 52, so that’s sad); I saw that this would be a list, and yet it was compelling. I meant to click away, but I couldn’t.

  2. slowbloom Post author

    I did bring a sarong, which can easily double as a towel, not to mention a quick-change station and cover-up when visiting sacred sites. Better to have multi-use items when packing light!

    I’m not sure how to respond to this second part of your response. If I didn’t know you, I’d think it was just a(nother) spam comment. Except you aren’t trying to sell me NFL jerseys or Michael Kors bags.

    1. The Good Luck Duck

      Ha! It’s true – I get those comments, too. Amazing content you offer – I could not look away!! Please write more about this topic. Here’s my website How To Get Down Off a Duck.

      I really just meant what I said. I thought Oh, a list. I can skip this, since I’m not planning any international backpacking but it drew me in.

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