packing

Packing 101: Packing for Southeast Asia

Bicyclist on U-Bein bridge, Amarapura

I’ve started assembling my wardrobe for an upcoming trip to Myanmar so it’s got me thinking about dressing for the tropics. I visited Myanmar 9 years ago and even though November/December is considered “winter” there, highs of 90F are common and the sun beating down on the open-air temples is incredibly, skin searingly strong. Most people think about going to the tropics and get started packing their very thin, very small pieces of clothing. For lots of southeast Asia though, this is not the right way to go.

Three nuns at Shwegadon Pagoda, Yangon.

Why?

Southeast Asian countries are surprisingly conservative. For all the beaches in Pattaya filled with bikinied Europeans, most places you visit expect you to be fully clothed unless you are actually on the beach. You must have your shoulders and knees covered to enter temples. A couple of sarongs can be deployed in these instances, but if your trip is not based at the beach, it’s easier to avoid the stares and dress a bit more modestly.

 

Market at Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.

Additionally, if you’re pale like me, visiting the tropics actually requires a well-thought-out sun-avoidance strategy in order to return home unburned.

Mosquitos can be an issue as well, and need to be considered especially if you’re forgoing anti-malaria medication. Malaria is not a problem in lots of southeast Asia but in Myanmar the deadly kind is common, so better safe than sorry.

So the basics of my tropical wardrobe consists of:

Thin, nylon capris: preferably stretchy for long days of travel, not too tight because no one wants to wear too-tight clothes when its 90F and 80% humidity. These are from Title Nine.

Title Nine Take-a-hike capri

Trousers similar to the capris above. I cannot bring myself to have anything to do with convertible pants but some folks love ’em. I have some linen trousers I got for my India trip a couple of years ago but frankly I find nylon ones more comfortable and much easier to launder. They also wrinkle less.

Shorts for lounging around in. Whatever you have at home is probably okay, as long is it’s mid-thigh or longer.

Tank tops or t-shirts, preferably wicking so sweat is less of an issue.

A key piece of my sun avoidance strategy is long-sleeved overshirts to cover arms and shoulders. Ex Officio makes some good ones, but be careful on sizing; their stuff tends to run small. I wear them unbuttoned so they are more about sun protection than anything else, but this one has permethrin in the fabric to thwart mozzies as well.

ExOfficio shirt

Very comfortable walking sandals. You’ll be taking them off and putting them on a lot when going into temples so it makes sense to have something very easy to get on and off. The very last thing you want is lace-up shoes as you’ll spend all your time fussing with them.

Teva Sandals

Flip flops which are the standard footwear for locals, but aren’t great for lots of walking if your feet are not used to it.

Sun hat -anything from a booney to a gardening hat will work, but I suggest getting something crushable so you don’t have to worry about getting it on the plane like you would with a standard straw hat.

And my tried-and-true so very special element: the “clean clothes”. I stumbled on this accidentally the very first time I went to the tropics on a hiking trip. All day hiking in the jungle in 90% humidity left me absolutely deflated and feeling incredibly sticky and gross. After a quick shower it occurred to me that that last thing I wanted to do was put these sweaty clothes back on. But I did have one tshirt and one pair of stretchy loose trousers that I hadn’t worn yet. So on went the “clean clothes” and I went to dinner feeling great. I isolated those clothes from the jungle funk of the rest of my suitcase in a ziploc bag and wore them every evening for dinner. It felt so wonderful to have this set of clean clothes to put on every night. I’ve been repeating this trick ever since.

Lamp lighting ceremony at Shwagadon pagoda, Yangon.

Of course, this is not the most fashion-forward set of clothes, but frankly no one cares what you’re wearing, unless you plan to hit up all the fancy clubs in Bangkok or something like that. And if you are going to be doing that, just toss a dress in the mix. The most important criteria is to be comfortable, be careful of sun and bugs and then when you get home pack them all up in a box of “jungle clothes” and start planning the next trip where you can wear them.

One important note: if you are a North American or European with big feet and broad shoulders, don’t expect to be able to land and pick up local clothing that fits. On my last trip my guide and I looked around for some of the nice velvet flip flops the locals wear and they were all laughably small for my (women’s) size 8 feet.

Packing 101: Make Your Own Amenity Kit

One of the things that people love about flying business or first class, aside from the gigantic seats and free-flowing liquor, is that the airlines fuss over them. Give them freebies. Think of all the little necessities. Like an amenity kit.

Well, you can so this too. A bit of planning, a few minutes in the drugstore, and you can make your own amenity kit that will make flying that little bit easier.

The real benefit these little kits give you, aside from the goodies inside, is a convenient place to put them so you know exactly where to find the thing you need, so that you don’t have to rummage around for 10 minutes trying to find your gum or whatever. I keep mine in my under-seat bag just so I get at anything I want even when we’re trapped in our seats by takeoff or landing.

I use a small orange mesh bag primarily cause the color makes it easy to find inside a larger dark bag, and the mesh makes it easier to find things inside in a potentially dark airplane cabin.

Amenity Kit

Here’s what I take:

– A small pen. Anytime you fly overseas, you’re going to have to fill out a customs form (if not other things) on arrival. If you have a pen handy, you never have to borrow one off your seatmate or worse, wait until you land to fill it out.

– Lip balm. To be honest, the only two things I really need to fly are a book and some lip balm. Flying is dehydrating, so I always end up with chapped lips.

-Face cleaner.  Flying long haul always makes me feel grubby. I used to bring along a tiny bottle of regular face cleaner, but that has the added complication of being a dreaded liquid, as well as then requiring water and then drying your face on stiff rough hand towels. So I recently came across small face cleaner wipes and they really do a good job of cleaning your face without leaving you feeling sticky.

 

Face cleaner

-Antibacterial gel – you saw that report that came out about how dirty seat back pockets are. Eeeeuw. Get a tiny bottle. I usually just leave it in this main bag without separating it with my other liquids; they’ve yet to catch me and seize it but your mileage may vary.

-Toothbrush/toothpaste. You can buy cheap foldable toothbrushes online which I like cause they fit in a small bag (and protect the bristles from getting stuff caught in them). I bought about 6 of these the last time I stocked up. For toothpaste, I always have a few “almost finished” mini-tubes from prior trips that I bring along in my amenity kit so that I’m not carrying the whole thing and then can toss it when done.

-Ear plugs. Ear plugs. Ear plugs. Do not travel with out them. Several of them in fact, so that if you lose a pair or two you’re still okay. From the roar of a jet engine to that baby that won’t stop screaming to that unexpected all-night wedding party happening outside your Indian hotel…. you get the idea. Just buy them in bulk. Ever since I found the incredibly garish hot pink ones, those are the one’s I’ve bought. They’re much easier to locate in the folds of the sheets when they’ve popped out of your ears.

-Eye mask. The first time I went to very northern Europe in midsummer I just happened to bring along a thin, cheap eyemask that I had gotten in an amenity kit from a previous trip to Asia. It was a lifesaver. I used it every night and would have been lost with out it. It was hard enough to buy headache medicine in Russia, I cannot imagine trying to mime “eye mask” to the lady at the chemists. My favorite style is the kind that has a bumped-out eye area that makes it so that you can comfortably open your eyes with it on. I usually keep it in a pocket on the carrying case for my noise-cancelling headphones intead of in the mesh bag itself. A little container of lotion oozed out a bit once and got all over it; that was not pretty.

Eye mask

-Medicines: depending on where you’re going this could just be a few Advil; on a longer flight where you want to get some sleep this could include Benadryl (my secret weapon sleeping pill), real sleeping pills, immodium, pepto bismol, heartburn medicine, migraine medicine, etc. Just a couple pills of each in a small pill box can be a lifesaver.

-Face moisturizer: I usually pack whatever free sample I have so sometimes decant something into a smaller screw-top container.

-Sunscreen: If you’re landing somewhere especially sunny, it’s a good idea to pack some so that you can apply it after your pre-arrival face washing is done. I often use free samples for this too — any SPF 20 will do, you just need to get something on there.

– Hand cream: Usually the richer the better, my hands get so dry and messed up when I fly that it’s always a relief to get some lotion on there.

-Emery board: For whatever reason every single time I fly I manage to tear an edge of a nail, or get it caught on something, then spend the next 10 hours getting more and more irritated by that little snag. Solution? An emery board (or part of one). At some hotel recently they had a package of cotton balls and such that included a little miniature one. Perfect for flying.

Other things to consider adding: Gum if you have air pressure issues in your ears. Mints. An energy bar. A tiny bottle of hot sauce (if you need to spice up that airline meal), floss (get the dentist to give you those tiny disks of Glide the next time you get your teeth cleaned).

Once you have this kit put together, all you need to do when packing is figure out what needs to be replaced or refilled. It’s always there in your little mesh bag, ready to go.

Bonus carry on items:

Water bottle: Airports are increasingly likely to have stations where you can fill up your own water bottle with filtered water on the other side of security. This is great if you don’t want to spend $3.50 on a bottle of water.

Noise-canceling headphones: I’m somewhat torn on these. I have the large over-ear ones, and while you can’t really sleep in them, they do a good job of blocking out some of the white noise engine roar and make it a lot easier to understand the conversation happening in the inflight movies (I’m also somewhat hard of hearing, so normally miss a lot of this with all the background noise on the plane).

Do you have any must-have carry on items you always bring on long flights?