Immunisations & Medication
Speak to your local nurse/doctor about immunisations, but be aware that it's their job to be over-cautious. Malaria isn't an issue in most regions of SE Asia, for instance. Do your research which plenty of time to spare and decide what you're most comfortable with.
If you need to bring prescription medication with you, there are various recommendations I've read about keeping all the boxes, prescriptions and such while travelling but I've never had any security or customs staff look twice at all of my medicine and I've been travelling for over two years without even keeping the original boxes.
If you're on a short trip then insurance your belongings is probably a good idea, especially if your schedule is hectic. However, if you're travelling for a long time, the cost of any worthwhile insurance would probably be higher than if you lost an expensive item. So my advice is just to be careful. Most hostels have lockers and some hotels have safes. I've never had anything stolen, luckily, but stories I've heard are usually about night buses or leaving items out in hostels or cafés. It's very rare to hear anything like this happening though. It's more common that items are lost or damaged.
Although I don't get insurance on my belongings, I always get medical insurance. It's a must! As long as you're covered for the major things like hospital visits, you should be fine. The cheapest medical insurance for travel is usually enough. You don't want to fall off a bike, break a few bones and then add an expensive insult to injury, costing you more than your entire trip!
I don't know about other countries, but it's hard to find UK travel insurance which allows you to apply once you've left the country. So make sure it's all done before you leave, including any medical background checks (always declare everything, otherwise the insurance might not pay up). There are some that allow you to cover for long-term, such as Go Walkabout which also allows you to extend while you're away as long as you do it before it expires.
As you might have read on many travel sites, it's highly recommended that you pack light. It might surprise you how little you need and anything you do need you can buy for cheaper in Asia anyway! If you only take a small bag (I used to travel with a 40L and 20L bag but now I've reduced it to a single 26L day pack) then it restricts you with what you can take and you'll be thankful every time you have to carry your bags. If you're only planning on going to warm countries then there's no reason to have one of those huge backpacks full of stuff you'll never use.
You really don't need to bring many clothes. I don't have any shoes (I've borrowed some for hikes) or socks with me and only bought cheap jeans and a hoodie after a few months when I arrived somewhere cold - much better than carrying them everywhere with me! You also won't need a towel and you'd be crazy to use up valuable space with it (a travel towel might be useful but I never need one). Think carefully about whether you need each item and weigh up the pros and cons (size, weight, whether you can buy one out there, etc) as you don't want to carry something for 6 months if you only use it once.
I recommend you start making a packing list long before you leave and check it carefully before you leave home. If you haven't left home yet, here are a few items that you might not have thought about packing:
- Good quality bags. Don't skimp on these as cheap ones will break if you're using them regularly. I travelled for over four years with my excellent Osprey Farpoint 40 which is the maximum size of hand luggage and doubles up as both a backpack and over-the-shoulder holdall. It's extremely useful to have a bag which unzips all the way around and folds out so you can easily get to your belongings without unpacking. I combined it with a Lowe alpine AirZone Z 20L Backpack which I used as a day bag. Now I have travel extra light with The North Face Vault Daypack (26.5L) but that's only after years of learning what I really need and don't need to travel with.
- A bumbag might be a good idea, both for the days when you might need to carry extras like your battery pack but also if you're planning on only having carry-on luggage then putting a few heavy items in your bumbag might be enough to get your bag to weigh under the limit.
- A credit/debit card with very low rates for withdrawing cash abroad (see section on ATMs and currency).
- US Dollars. They're needed for quite a few visas and could come in handy as back-up money in an emergency.
- Passport photos. Again, necessary for some visas. Bring plenty as it's not always easy or cheap to get new ones.
- Laptop. This really depends on what you need. I initially had 2 months without a laptop (before buying one in Bangkok) and it was hard to organise my photos and do research. I was forced to use internet cafés and I lost some photos from a memory card because one of the computers had a virus. I also need a laptop for my work, so it's a non-brainer for me. If you don't want to take a laptop then a tablet can be useful for watching movies and researching your next destination (it gets frustrating on a phone screen).
- TV, Movies, Music & Audiobooks. There are times when the wifi is down, useless or just not good enough to stream video. There can also be long journeys. Having some offline entertainment can be priceless.
- Travel power adaptor, preferably with USB ports. Genuinely one of my favourite purchases was the MOGICS Power Bagel. It's small, works universally (both in and out), has space for 5 plugs and 2 USB devices and has a cord to help reach those annoying wall sockets.
- External Battery Pack for charging USB devices (such as your phone). This has helped me too many times to count. They're pretty cheap and I really recommend you carry one. I would suggest having one large on and a smaller one you can easily fit in your pocket.
- A good camera which fits in your pocket or bag. When I first started long-term travel, I took my Canon G16 with me literally everywhere and used it every day. These days the camera on my Pixel phone is good enough for me.
- A GoPro if you can afford it. Obviously it's not an essential, but you'll probably be doing so many activities that it will be worth every penny! You'll need at least one spare battery as they don't last long.
- A spare phone just in case you lose or break your main one. If you still have an old phone, it's worth bringing it as you won't want to be without one.
- Toilet roll. Always good to have in your bag.
- Earplugs and eye mask. If you value your sleep. I prefer wax earplugs.
- Rain covers for your bags. If yours doesn't have one built-in, you can buy them separately online for very cheap.
- Good quality gaffa tape. I use Gorilla Tape. I might only use it about once a month, but when I do need it, it's extremely useful. Note: after about 30 flights with this tape in my hand luggage, I had one roll confiscated at Melbourne airport.
- Sharpie pen. Very handy.
- Padlocks. My main bag has zips that lock together. When I use transport where bags are stored in the back or on the roof, or if I leave my bag in storage somewhere, I always padlock the zips together just to stop any opportunists. My bag is heavy, so they're unlikely to run off with the whole thing! I use a combination padlock so I don't have to worry about the key. I also have a thin metal padlock cable for securing my bag - usually to a bed when staying in a dorm.
- Merino wool clothing. I bought three lightweight tops and some underwear from Icebreaker after reading lots of travel blogs recommending them and they've been amazing.
- Zip-lock bags (or similar) in various sizes. They can be unexpectedly useful.
- Money belt or hidden pocket. It's common to withdraw the maximum allowed cash at an ATM to reduce the fees, which means you need to look after lots of money. Lots of hotel rooms come with a safe but I prefer to keep it in a hidden pocket in my shorts or a money belt. Then you can just keep small notes in your wallet.
- Travel sewing kit could be very useful.
- Plastic poncho. I no longer carry one and can't think of any occasions where I wish I had one, but they are so small and cheap that you might as well have one in your bag if you're worried.
- Compass for road trips. I carry a tiny compass keyring which I find especially useful when on my scooter and when using Google Maps to work out which direction to start in.
- Bottle opener. I also have a small bottle opener keyring, which is useful when having beers on the beach or at your accommodation.
- Cigarette lighter USB adapter. Perfect for charging your phone in a car. Your phone is your most valuable tool when travelling, so make use of every chance to keep it charged.
- Washing powder. In Southeast Asia, laundry is so cheap and easy that I never need to do my own, but in other regions it's good to have a small amount of washing powder.
- Doorstop. If you are worried about security, a good tip is to bring a small doorstop to push under your door so you can sleep safely knowing no one can walk in.
♀ Female travellers
Here's a list from my Australian friend Fran who has spent years in Southeast Asia. Some of her tips are good for men too. Thanks, Fran!
- Bring a menstrual cup or big supply of tampons. You can get some here but they're not good.
- Cosmetics and sunscreen are all more expensive here and 90% of the time have whitening chemicals in them.
- You can get the basics (shampoo/conditioner/deodorant) from pharmacies or foreign supermarkets.
- Tea tree oil/spray is great for preventing or killing head lice.
- Coconut oil is just about good for everything (moisturiser/lice/lubricant/cooking/mouthwash).
- If you are on any specific meds (particular mental health), consider bringing for duration of trip as quality here varies alot.
- Bring a keep cup if you love coffee and a reusable water bottle.
- Never get aggressive/angry at people in Southeast Asia, even if it's their fault. It's never taken well as it's not part of the culture.
- Bras can be quite difficult to find here, especially for larger busts. Vietnam & Thailand are easier but still not great.
- Travel with a conscience!
A lot of travellers buy chunky guide books (usually Lonely Planet) for each country they plan to visit. From my experience, the best thing about these books is getting an overall sense of a country and each place. It can help you choose your next destination and plan a route through a region. It is also a great way to do some background reading of the country and culture before you arrive. However, there are enough negatives that mean I don't ever carry these books (not since a 3-month trip in 2006 where Lonely Planet guides probably doubled the weight of my luggage):
- As I mention in another section, I highly recommend packing lightly. This is absolutely the main reason not to bring guide books.
- There are a lot of great free online resources. Travelfish (specifically for SE Asia) and Wikitravel are fantastic and are always being updated. I often read the entries on those two sites, along with Wikipedia, before I get to a new place.
- Most guide books are tailored to a certain type of traveller, looking for a specific type of experience. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to food, where the choices are often tourist-friendly (and I don't mean that in a good way). In fact, that's probably the main reason I decided to create my own food guides.
- Once a business is featured in Lonely Planet, it quite often goes downhill. The prices go up and quality goes down.
- By the time you're reading the guidebook, it's already out of date.
Visas & Borders
Always research the current visa situation before entering a new country. The rules can change regularly and they can vary depending on where/how you enter a country. Some countries you can just turn up but others you need to plan ahead and get a visa before entering. There may be restrictions such as needing proof of an outbound flight before being allowed on a flight (such as Australia and New Zealand) although you can always cancel or change the flight after you've arrive.
Some other things to be aware of:
- Cambodia officially says the visa is 30 days but in reality they just add one month, so if you arrive in February, you'll actually only have 28 days. I got caught out by this and managed to successfully argue my case.
- Thailand will let you overstay your visa by one day before they start fining you, or worse.
- If you use Vietnam's free 15 day visa (not available to all nationalities) then you can't return on another 15 day visa until over 30 days later. So for instance, you can't do 15 days in Vietnam, 30 in Thailand and then another 15 in Vietnam. You'd need to stay away for at least 31 days. Again, I got caught out by this but managed to talk my way out of it.
- New Zealand now requires their NZeTA before you arrive. You can do it online.
- Australia needs a visa beforehand. Again you can do it online. The eVisitor visa is quick and easy. Don't make the same mistake as I did and apply for a transit visa, even if you only need an hour in the country. That visa is ridiculously complicated.
- Thailand and Malaysia offically have quite a few rules such as needing an outbound flight, but in reality they've never even asked me.
Plan but don't have fixed plans
It's always good to be well-informed about a country or region and having a rough idea of a plan is great but try to be as flexible as possible. If you can, don't make bookings too far ahead as then you can stay longer in places you love, leave places you don't and just go with the flow. It can be great to meet new people and join forces to travel together for a little while which can totally change what you'd planned to do but usually for the best.
I always look up my new destination on Travelfish before I get there. It's gives great summaries of even really small towns in S.E. Asia. It's also well-suited to budget travellers so I often use their guesthouse recommendations and email ahead to get good deals.
And remember not to rush. It's not a competition to visit as many countries as possible or to see as many tourist attractions as you can, just so you can say you've done them. If possible, allow enough time in a region to get to know the people and culture. You'll be rewarded for it.