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Back on the road: Planning a long-term trip to spellbinding Southeast Asia

Almost three years ago to the day, I was sat in the departure lounge at Bali's Denpasar Airport, tanned and exhausted, about to leave Southeast Asia. It had been a sublime - but at times challenging - journey. I'd travelled solo for four months, kayaking down the Mekong in Laos, motorbiking Vietnam's coast, and island-hopping in Thailand, before finishing off with a paradisiacal month on Bali.

Motorbiking in Vietnam, Southeast Asia

The Southeast Asian leg of my journey had followed on from three months in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, and after more than half a year abroad, I was ready to get back to the UK. Frankly, I'd eaten all the noodles and veggies I could stomach, and - unbelievably - I found myself missing the cold weather. As the plane left the tarmac, I reflected that it would probably be a decade or so before I returned. While I've always been enchanted by Southeast Asia, four months with my big red backpack had felt like enough, and there was plenty more of the world to explore.

Enchanted by Southeast Asia

And yet, just three years later, I found myself lugging the same backpack to Manchester Airport, a one-way ticket to Bangkok in hand. Since I returned from my first trip, I've crammed a fair amount of travelling into two-week annual leave windows: road-tripping Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, eating cannoli in Palermo and drinking Vinho Verde in Portugal, trekking amidst Sri Lanka's glorious tea country, cosy wintertime trips to Vilnius and Brussels, and a whirlwind week in sizzling Cuba, to name a few. But, whenever I found myself walking through rainy Manchester or trapped in a particularly tedious meeting, I'd invariably end up daydreaming about the tropical vegetation and easy way of life of Southeast Asia.

Mekong, Laos, Southeast Asia

And so once again, I quit my day job - and convinced my boyfriend Phil to quit his too - in order to venture back to my favourite continent, this time for six months, before travelling on to Eastern Europe for another six. This time the stakes are higher. I'd undertaken my previous trip as a footloose 26-year-old, but now I've just turned 30. As we jet off to sunnier climes, our friends are buying houses, building their careers, and having children. And yet returning to my favourite continent was a supremely easy decision to make.

How to pack and plan for a long-term trip to Southeast Asia

I'd learned a lot of hard lessons surrounding packing and planning during my first long-term trip, and I planned to put these learnings to good use. Here are my top tips when it comes to preparing for a trip to Southeast Asia.

  1. Joining the dots: Plan a skeleton itinerary

    Itinerary for the trip in Southeast Asia

    Planning your route is step one when organising a long trip, but sitting down with a map and a proverbial blank slate can be as daunting as it is exciting. I'm a firm believer in skeleton itineraries. Whether your transport goes awry, or you simply want to stay for longer in a particularly charming destination, planning hotels and transport months ahead of time is asking for trouble. Instead, I prefer to identify the countries I'm desperate to visit, and then simply join the dots by creating the easiest route between those destinations.

    It can be slightly alarming to head off to a distant country without a concrete idea of where you're heading once you get there, but at some point even your best-laid plans will go off track. I just didn't realise quite how soon we'd mess up our itinerary this time - before we'd even left the UK!

    A temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Southeast Asia

    We planned a skeleton itinerary: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore. This would take us clockwise around the continent's northern nations before we took the train south through Malaysia to Singapore. We'd spend a few days in Singapore before flying to Oman, and then on to Eastern Europe.

    However, upon arriving at the airport, we were informed that we could not check in without an onward flight booked from Thailand. Panicking, I quickly booked two flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia for one month's time, on the simple premise that this was the cheapest flight. And just like that, we had to re-route our itinerary, which is now taking a - somewhat convoluted - counter-clockwise path through Southeast Asia. At time of writing, it looks like this:

    Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, Southeast Asia

    • Northern Thailand
    • Cambodia
    • Vietnam
    • Laos
    • Southern Thailand
    • Malaysia
    • Singapore.

    While I wish we'd booked our onward journey earlier than two hours before we jetted off from the UK, this situation made me extra thankful we'd not booked accommodation and internal transport way in advance. Instead, we're generally planning our routes - with the help of Lonely Planet and various travel bloggers - just before we arrive in the country, but also staying open to adjusting them on the way.

  2. Don't pack as many clothes as you want to

    Tips for packing for a long-term trip to Southeast Asia

    Packing enough for a whole year sounds impossible - and in some ways it is. On my first Southeast Asian adventure, I simply stuffed all my UK summer clothes in my backpack, a decision I regretted when I:

    1. Regularly wore perhaps one-quarter of what I'd brought with me.
    2. Was constantly staggering under the sheer weight of the backpack.

    Dressing for the day in Southeast Asia isn't the same as back home. To begin with, you don't need to look particularly glamorous, and even if you set off in the morning with a beautiful dress and a full face of makeup, the heat and humidity means that by the time you return, your look will have taken a turn for the worse. Instagram influencers may claim otherwise, but it's just very hard to look "put together" in this heat; a glance at the photos from my last trip prove that.

    Visiting the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam, Southeast Asia

    This time I packed a fabulous dress or two, for special evenings, but otherwise, I held back on the "nice" clothes. Instead I opted for practical gear: leggings to ensure my legs remain bite-free while hiking, sports shorts for a comfortable wander around town, loose trousers for relaxing at the hotel or visiting temples. Four or five loose, plain T-shirts in light colours that go with anything. There's no need to pack more as laundry services are pretty cheap - it's generally £1 or less for 1 kg of laundry to be done within 24 hours, and your clothes will be returned to you in pristine condition.

    Floating market near Bangkok, Thailand, Southeast Asia

    It's also worth mentioning that you'll end up buying most of your travelling clothes while out here. The shops are packed with racks of beautiful patterned trousers, loose T-shirts, and gorgeous flowing dresses that are perfect for existing in comfort in Southeast Asia's balmy climate. And you can purchase any of the above for £2 or less, if you're willing to haggle. If you're travelling for a while, the garments you brought from Britain will slowly be left behind and replaced by colourful items acquired from the street stalls and night markets in Thailand or Vietnam.

  3. Ditch the heels for walking boots

    Ditch the heels and go for walking boots when packing for Southeast Asia

    Shoes are the your worst enemy when you're trying to pack, because they take up so much of that precious backpack space. If you're planning to trek, cumbersome walking boots are unfortunately a must, but you can still save space shoe-wise.

    As well as your walking boots, you'll definitely need flip flops or sliders, and a pair of pumps or trainers. If you're planning to stay in upmarket hotels or visit fancy restaurants, you may also want to pack a pair of nice flats that will go with any outfit. However - and I'm speaking from experience: unless you're here simply for a quick holiday, ditch the heels. No-one wears heels in Southeast Asia: it's too hot for the extra effort, and they'll take up a lot of coveted backpack space for just one or two outings.

    A simple shoe-related packing hack: stuff your socks or other small items into your walking boots and pumps for a space win.

  4. Splash out on packing cubes

    Backpack with packing cubes

    This is probably a weird thing for a rather unorganised person to say, but I am passionate about packing cubes. These little bags are deceptively strong, meaning you can stuff all your rolled up clothes into them, compacting your belongings to save space in your luggage.

    Allocate one for tops, another for bottoms, and another for underwear, and you won't end up having to unpack and repack your entire bag for every outfit change. Yes, they do seem pretty expensive, but without my packing cubes, I would probably still be in a room in Manchester, trying to work out how to stuff a year's worth of clothes into my backpack.

  5. Pack a sturdy first aid kit

    First Aid Kit

    Remember to pack first aid kit, just in case...

    No-one wants to have to use a first aid kit abroad, but if you're away for more than a couple of weeks, you'll be glad you packed it. During my years of travel I've had countless injuries, from cutting my hand on a bamboo stalk while trekking in Thailand to falling down a flight of stairs while sleepwalking in Portugal. While I may be especially clumsy, a well-stocked first aid kit is a must for any trip or holiday, no matter the destination or length of time.

    So what to include? Plasters and antiseptic wipes are a must - they'll ensure the little cuts and grazes you get along the way are tended to. If you end up with a slightly bigger cut, you'll need gauze, bandages and surgical tape. A small pair of scissors and tweezers, meanwhile, will come in handy for a multitude of tasks. When it comes to medication, aside from any prescriptions, bring a pack of paracetamol to ensure an annoying headache doesn't get in the way of a potential day of adventure.

    Take your medicine and pills when you go to Southeast Asia

    Antihistamine pills are a godsend for those of us with hayfever when we're in vegetative climes, while antihistamine cream can be used to treat bites. Bite cooling spray meanwhile will save you a world of irritation after a mosquito bite. When in a new country, you'll likely want to sample local cuisine, which - in Southeast Asia - often comes in the form of street food. The vast majority of the time, you'll experience no medical problems as a result of this. But in case you do suffer from an upset stomach, rehydration sachets and Imodium tablets will set you on the road to recovery.

    When travelling, ensure all medications are kept in their original containers in case customs officials need to check them. You'll be able to restock your kit in the pharmacies in Southeast Asia's towns and cities, major cities even have Boots, so make sure you have everything you need before setting out for a trek or adventure in the wilderness.

Never leave your hotel without...

We've covered itinerary planning, and packing your backpack for a year in Southeast Asia. But what essentials should go in your day bag that you wouldn't usually carry around at home?

  • Take your hand sanitiser everywhere you go in Southeast Asia

    Hand sanitiser - Whether you're getting out into the wilderness, or simply going shopping at the market, you'll be glad you've brought your hand sanitiser along. If you want to sample local culture - from street markets and local restaurants to homestays - it's unrealistic to expect the same standards of hygiene you would see in the UK. A quick squirt of hand sanitiser will ensure you can go about the rest of your day without worrying about germs.

  • Tissues and toilet roll

    Tissues and toilet roll will come handy.

    Tissues - Tissues are something of a precious commodity in Southeast Asia. Many toilets you'll visit won't have toilet roll, and in tourist toilets you're often charged for it. Bringing your own is the best way to go. If you have a bit of extra space, bring some wet wipes too for a spot of refreshment after a walk in the heat.

  • Insect repellent containing DEET - There's no nice way to put this: bugs are everywhere in Southeast Asia. If you're in a rural area you'll likely see more than you would in the cities, but you still shouldn't go out for a day in Bangkok without a good spritzing of Deet to keep the mozzies at bay.

  • Sun cream - No matter whether you're visiting in wet or dry season, you're liable to get sunburned. Don't let a grey sky fool you - apply sunscreen every morning and top up regularly during the day.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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