Sunday, 20 October 2013

How to pack like a pro for SE Asia

Recently, I've noticed a lot of packing lists appearing on Pinterest. Fair enough, except most of them are nuts.

One list I saw recently suggested an Asian packing list with 4 pairs of shorts, 2 mini skirts, 4 tank tops, 4 t-shirts, 3 sleeveless jersey dresses, and 3 pairs of shoes (of which one was a strappy sandal, and 2 were ballerina flats). Seriously? They're packing tonnes of clothing, and yet have nothing practical or appropriate for most situations.

The first time I went away as an adult, I over-packed like almost everyone does. But I've now been doing this for several decades, including a recent 3 week trip in Burma with nothing but a small piece of hand luggage, so I'm a packing pro!

So here's the skinny on packing for Asia:

- It's hot and humid in most of SE Asia, so you want breathable fabrics. You'll also sweat a lot, so you'll be showering and changing your clothing frequently. That means you'll want clothing that's durable enough to stand up to repeated washings without falling apart, and will dry quickly.
- Even in SE Asia, it can be cool in the hill towns, and indoors the aircon is often set on iceberg, so you'll want something warm but lightweight.
- You'll need something conservative for visiting temples and smaller towns (showing your legs or shoulders is considered disrespectful in a religious settings, as well as in more conservative areas)
- You'll need clothing that protects your skin - long sleeves and long trousers to provide protection from mosquitoes in the evenings, as well as if you want to do any hiking or walking in the jungle, and to prevent sunburn (even with high factor sunscreen, it's still very easy to burn).
- Dressing like a beach bum is accepted in beach resorts, but away from the beach you'll get more respect if you look reasonably neat and presentable, especially if trying to check into a nicer hotel, or eat at a decent restaurant.
- With the heat, clothes tend to dry fairly quickly, so it's easy to wash out that day's clothes before you go to bed, and they'll often be fully dry by the following morning (although if your guesthouse bathroom has no ventilation, it could take a little longer. Plus, all guesthouses, hostels and hotels offer a laundry service, and if inexpensive places that laundry's pretty cheap, so you can get all your clothes washed for you, for about a dollar. I tend to get my clothes washed for me about once a fortnight, to give myself  a break from doing it myself.

So here's what I pack:
- 1 pair of long trousers (in a non-crease fabric)
- 1 long skirt (ankle or calf length) or a second pair or trousers
- Optional add-on: 1 pair of conservative shorts. Knee length or longer shorts is better than short shorts. These I only wore in cities or beach areas, not countryside or temple-sites. They double as swimwear as well.
- 1 long sleeved shirt, the type that buttons, for protecting skin from sunburn or mosquitoes, smartening up, or using as warmer over layer, but which doesn't require ironing.
- 1 large thin wrap or sarong in an absorbent fabric. This has so many uses - shawl, headscarf, towel, skirt, etc.
- 3 t-shirts (not tank-tops - they're disrespectful in some situations and leave your shoulders very exposed to sunburn).
- 4 panties, 4 pairs of socks, 2-3 bras (if required)
- swimsuit if you're going to be spending lots of time on the islands / beach resorts - if you're not planning much beach time, skip the swimmers and just swim in shorts and a t-shirt.
- Walking shoes - something sturdy and practical. Can be trainers, hiking boots, etc., but preferably a pair that's easy to get on and off without struggling too much with laces, as you will have to take your shoes off regularly.
- Optional add-on 2: lightweight slip-on shoes - something a bit nicer for restaurants, as well as just running from your beach shack down to the beach. These can be something like nice sandals or ballet flats, but make sure you've worn them quite a few times before the trip, to be certain they won't rub when your feet start to sweat.
- Small satchel for carrying about in the day - a lot of people use small daypacks, but I prefer a smarter satchel as it can also be carried in the evening as a handbag alternative. Worn across the body it's more secure from bag-snatchers than a handbag is, too.
- Sunhat, sunglasses.
- High-factor sunscreen - not always available or can be quite expensive when you can find it.
- Powerful antiperspirant or deodorant - again, isn't always available, and if you're like me and used to cold countries, you'll sweat a lot until your body acclimatises.
- Tampons (if required).
- Mini first aid kit: painkillers, immodium, band-aids, alcohol wipes and antiseptic ointment for the inevitable little accidents, anti-itch cream for the inevitable mosquito bites.
- Toothbrush, comb or hairbrush.
- Prescriptions.
- Any essential, unusual toiletries - you can buy soap, toothpaste, bug spray and shampoo anywhere on the road, normally for cheaper than you'd buy it at home, but if you have to use anything special that's hard to find, you'll need to bring it from home.
- Optional add-on 3: Moneybelt - as a safe place to store my passport and credit card.
- Something to take pictures, something to read, and something to access the internet through the guesthouse's wifi (e-readers can be great for this). Also useful is an unlocked phone - you can easily pick up a local pay-as-you-go sim card in many places.
- Other miscellaneous bits and pieces that can be useful - duct-tape, ear plugs, a thin sleeping bag liner if you tend to stay at cheaper guesthouses or hostels. You can read some more esoteric packing tips here.

Ideally all the clothing should work with everything else - when assembling my packing list, I lay all my clothing out on the bed and check that each top can be worn with each bottom, to give me maximum flexibility.

Don't take many accessories - belts, jewelry, etc. If your clothing is decent and fits well, you won't need them, and excess weight is never your friend.

Don't take PJs (you can just sleep in a t-shirt). Don't take much (or ideally, any) makeup (you'll be sweating too much half the time to make makeup practical).

You'll also notice that I brought 3 bottoms, 4 tops, 4 underclothes - I generally follow the "one to wear, one to wash, and one to dry" rule, but in really hot countries I'll take a 4th top and underwear, as I expect to wash and change clothes more than once a day. I have no objection to washing a couple of items in the sink on a regular basis, in between sending out loads of laundry, especially when it means I can get all my clothes into a small bag.

If you're planning to include cooler countries in your itinerary, you can easily pick up a cheap fleece on the road, or go to those countries early on in the trip, and either mail the fleece to family back at home or donate it to charity, so you don't need to carry around excess weight for the rest of the trip.

And finally, this is the exact same amount of gear I take for a two week or a three month trip.

Packing, sorted!

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