I’m probably the worst traveler in the world in terms of organisation, but this means I’m in a pretty good position to advise you of what’s essential – because if I consider it essential, chances are you will too. Since I first went traveling I’ve been messaged by lots of my friends asking what they need to take along on their trip. Some of them are the “planners” and they spend the weeks leading up to their trip in a cloud of anxiety, worrying that they’ll forget something and their trip will be ruined. You’ll be able to find most of what you need in Asia, so don’t stress too much but at least consider all of these things before you go.
Without further ado, here’s my travel checklist. If you have these things covered I’m sure your trip will run smoothly enough.
A Healthy Traveler Is A Happy Traveler
Make sure that you have the appropriate vaccinations for your trip. I would advise seeing a doctor who specialises in travel medicine four to six weeks before you intend to depart. For South East Asia I was given a tetanus shot and a combined Hep A & B vaccination. I decided not to get the rabies vaccination because it was expensive, I hadn’t budgeted enough time for the course of vaccinations and if you are bitten by a stray animal you still have to get injections after the fact. This is a personal decision and you should talk to your doctor about whether you think it’s the best option for you. In New Zealand the injections I got were fairly expensive, running at a few hundred dollars including the consultation. You’ll need to factor this into your travel budget from the beginning.
Malaria Is Deadly
If you are traveling outside of the main developed cities, then you will probably need to consider anti malaria treatment. I personally chose to minimize my chance of infection in two ways. The first step was literally covering myself in deet (or an appropriate mosquito repellant) all the time. I added it to my daily routine – after brushing my teeth I’d smother myself and I’d always carry it around with me during the day. After traveling for a few months I got pretty fed up with spraying on repellent so I bought some repellant wipes that were a nice change to use. Don’t skimp out on this one, a leg smothered with 40 mosquito bites does not look good and it’s potentially dangerous, too.
The second avenue I took was an anti malaria pill – I chose Doxycycline mostly because of money, the other popular alternative Malarone is 5- 10 times the cost. There are pros and cons to both of these and I am by no means an expert, so I suggest that you research the specifics of these yourself, or talk to your travel doctor. I ended up extending my travels for much longer than I had originally planned and found it very easy to find Doxycycline in Asia and it was 1/10th of the price I paid in New Zealand. I would suggest taking a small supply from home and buying more from a reputable pharmacy such as Boots in Thailand. I suffered from a number of side effects from Doxy that were not desirable and eventually I chose to discontinue taking them. This was a very personal decision, but it is not so uncommon among long term travelers. If you would like to know more information about this decision, feel free to post a comment here and I’d be happy to answer.
I would also suggest that you take some kind of emergency kit with you. Chances are you’re going to get food poisoning at some stage during your travels and when it happens you want to be able to minimize the discomfort. I had a variety of pills that I bought in a food poisoning kit from my travel doctor – one that was the biggest saving grace was something called a “stopper” – I’m not sure of the specific medication in it, but basically it stopped the physical symptoms of food poisoning long enough for me to endure a 33 hour bus ride. Things like bandaids, paracetamol etc are all fairly easy to pick up overseas, but there’s no harm in bringing some with you.
For The Ladies
I would suggest that you bring a supply of sanitary products with you – while you can find them in most parts of Asia, they’re a lot more expensive than I was used to paying back home. Tampons are a bit rarer, but again you can find them in big cities like Bangkok. If you are taking antibiotics (such as Doxycycline) you are more likely to get thrush, so you should purchase some medication to combat this, just in case. Be mindful that if you’re taking oral contraception any use of antibiotics can impair the pills ability to prevent pregnancy.
Pack Light Then Pack Lighter
If I could do my first trip to Asia all over again I would take only the clothes on my back. If you venture out past the main cities, there are parts of Asia that are pretty dirty and any nice clothes you have are going to be all but destroyed. If you are of small to average western size you should have no problem finding clothes in Asia. You can literally pick up singlets for $1-2. Take a few basics but be prepared to buy as you need along the way. Don’t bother taking anything white there, as when you return it will be a muggy shade of gray that even the strongest washing detergent cannot mute. Buy over there and donate the clothes you don’t want to take home.
My one essential packing tip? Ziplock bags. I am crazy about them and I don’t really understand how people travel without them. I also have a slight irrational fear of airport security opening up my backpack and underwear flying everywhere. So, I roll up my clothes into ziplock bags and then I pack them into my backpack. Shoes fit into ziplock bags. Electrical cords fit into ziplock bags. Everything fits into ziplock bags. You can reuse them over and over. I usually pack outfits together in the bags, so that it’s easy to find something to wear. I will keep all my dirty clothes together in specific ziplock bags which keeps my clean clothes super clean. It also allows you to fit a lot more stuff into your backpack and so long as you maintain your bags, it makes repacking a breeze – trust me on this one.
You Need a Good Backpack
I don’t think Asia is an appropriate place for suitcase traveling. Unless you plan to spend a very long time in each place, it will become frustrating and hinder your travels. There are three things I would suggest that anyone looks for in a backpack:
Waterproof cover – this is great for when it rains, but I use it most of the time. It doubles as a protection against wandering hands and makes me feel a little more secure about my bag being checked luggage. Most good backpacks should have one already in the backpack, but double check.
Zips all the way around – Maybe your preference is a hiking style bag, with only a zipper around the very top. But every time I’ve seen someone struggle to find something at the bottom of their bag while simultaneously throwing everything out, I’ve thanked myself for choosing a bag that zips all the way around. It’s just easier to deal with. On that note make sure your backpack has two zips so that you can lock them together if you want added security.
A day bag – You should try to find a backpack that has a detachable day bag. They are so useful and it’s great being able to leave your big bag in storage while you do a trek with only your small pack. I find it to be a lot more comfortable connecting the day bag to my main pack, rather than walking around with a small backpack on my front – plus it looks less ridiculous, bonus!
Bring Some Photos / Postcards From Home
You’re going to meet people and they’re going to want to know more about your world. This is especially true for locals who might not ever be able to venture to your country. Bring photos of your family and your country. If you’re from somewhere that snows bring photos of that too. Many people I met along the way would always ask me whether it snows in New Zealand as it’s one of their dreams to see snow. Postcards from home are something nice that you can leave with locals that have left an impression on you, they’ll really treasure them.
Learn Some Local Lingo
You don’t need to stress yourself out learning seeming useless phrases such as “Do you speak English?” because if they do, you could just ask in English 😉 but if you want to learn some local lingo I suggest you should learn the basics: Hello, please, thank you, yes, no, how much, help and my personal favourite “expensive” or “so expensive”. When I was in Kuala Lumpur I was traveling with two guys and we went to a market to look at wallets. The guy quoted us a price and my response was “so mahal!” (so expensive) and he was very impressed and immediately lowered the price substantially. Anything above this you can learn, but these as the absolute essentials in my opinion.
Other Misc Things
Travel Insurance – I’ve had a number of things go wrong on my travels – There was a disaster in my home city and I was flown home from India, I was attacked in Indonesia and required 8 stitches, my camera was broken, my laptop screen was shattered, I had really bad food poisoning that required medical treatment and so on… thankfully my travel insurance covered all of those things. Get it and make sure you read up on it. My travel insurance doesn’t cover me for any alcohol (or drug) related injuries… hmm.
Camera – Photography is part of the reason I travel, so I wouldn’t be able to survive without mine.
A travel towel – smaller, lighter and faster to dry than a normal towel. Hard to find in Asia, buy at home.
Wet wipes – I use these for everything, from emergency toilet paper to an emergency shower. They’re also a godsend for cleaning your hands before you eat if you’re a little dirty. Cheap in big cities in Asia.
A small torch – you’ll likely end up in some situations where there’s no lights, so you’ll need a torch. Easy to find in Asia.
Photocopies of my documents – I scanned my passport, emailed it to myself and printed it out, just in case I lose mine and need a replacement.
Adapters – I usually just pick them up in the country I’m visiting for a few dollars each.
If you consider everything mentioned here, you should be well prepared to backpack around Asia. Don’t forget your passport – it has to be valid for at least six months. You will need to check what visas you require for the individual countries you intend to visit.
Check out the eight things you really shouldn’t do in Asia.