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20 Things To Pack Before Backpacking Through Southeast Asia

During the 1960s, hippies from the Western world blazed a tourist trail through the exotic countries of Southeast Asia. Local street food vendors catered to their picky palates with cheap-and-easy-to-make banana pancakes along the way, which is why the route they followed back then is known today as the "banana pancake trail." It unofficially includes Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, and—depending on who you ask—perhaps others, too.

Now, half a century later, twenty-somethings still flock to the region to swim at The Philippines' pristine beaches, trek through towering rainforest ferns in Thailand, and sink their boots in the ride paddies of Northern Vietnam. Southeast Asia is the ideal introduction to a non-Western culture, considering much of the population has been catering to tourism for decades. And because the climate is perpetually hot and almost everything is cheap—we're talking $1 beers here—there's simply no excuse for carrying a heavy load. That being said, there are certain items on the packing checklist that shouldn't be overlooked. Backpacking the banana pancake trail can be a breeze with the appropriate gear. Here are 20 Southeast Asia-specific travel essentials that you might not think to pack but should.

20 Waterproof Phone Case

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Sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia are a number of picture-perfect waterfalls offering a sweet escape from the unrelenting heat. Whether to prevent them from being stolen or to capture the perfect Instagram post, some visitors prefer to take their mobile phones in the water with them, which only the few who have waterproof cases can safely do. Anyone who is traveling during the summer will also likely have days when they're stuck in the rain, and while Southeast Asia has plenty of rice to submerge a soaking wet phone in, it doesn't have a lot of options to replace one once it's gone for good. It's simple: keep your technology protected.

19 Dramamine

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Traveling through Asian countries can be—and often is—a less-than-luxurious experience, especially for budget-conscious backpackers. The cheapest way to get from A to B is often a two-story sleeper bus or a choppy boat ride along the Mekong. Southeast Asians aren't exactly known for their good driving skills, either—in fact, traffic accidents are the leading cause of fatalities in Vietnam—and rest assured there won't be any medications for motion sickness on board. Sleeping in a bus seat is bad enough; a single anti-nausea pill can prevent you from being motion sick so you can focus solely on being sore.

18 Headlamp 

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Speaking of sleeper buses, books are a good way to pass the time, whether it be on a five- or 16-hour journey. You may find yourself on a dark bus or lying in your hostel bed at night with nothing to do. This is why it's best to always travel with: A) a book, and B) a headlamp to read it with. Of course, headlamps also come in handy for homestays that don't have electricity—not uncommon in the remote villages—or when the sun goes down and you realize your motorbike doesn't have a functioning headlight.

17 Wet Wipes

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Most hostels throughout Southeast Asia don't allow guests to wear shoes inside. Nearly everything you touch will have been touched by thousands of people before you. Wet wipes are a great, easy-to-pack product to keep hands and feet clean and refreshed. Additionally, squat toilets are the norm in this region, and toilet paper is not. Putting paper in the toilets causes system back-ups, so if you insist on sticking to these Western customs, you'll need to pack your own and alwaysthrow them away in a garbage bin.

16 Belt Bag

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It just so happens that fanny packs are fashionable right now, Harper's Bazaar has declared, but some travelers would argue that they never went out of style. The belt bag has long been a staple of travel because, unlike backpacks and purses with shoulder straps, they're more difficult to snatch. Whether it's a grab-and-go act by a thief on a motorbike or a sneaky hand slipping into the front pocket of your day pack, robberies happen daily, despite where you travel to. Keeping your valuables close with an around-the-waist bag is a good idea for daytime adventures and night bus excursions alike.

15 Umbrella

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It's no secret that it rains frequently in Southeast Asia. The region is home to tropical rainforests, after all. And while many may discard the notion of lugging around a bulky umbrella in their packs, this multi-purpose piece can be used for more than just a rainy day. It can be used, namely, for the relentless tropical sun. On the internationally recognized UV Index, which ranges from 0 to 11+, countries like Singapore sometimes reach the "extreme" level of 15. You might think that seeking shelter from the sun under an umbrella is an embarrassing travel faux-pas, but one sunburn by the Southeast Asian sun is sure to prove you wrong.

14 Activated Charcoal

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Trying traditional foods from street vendors and dining with the locals is a key part of the Southeast Asia experience. City sidewalks are typically lined with food carts pouring smoke into the streets as they cook up barbecued meats, fried rice, pad Thai, banh mis and so much more. Of course, not everything sold on the street can be trusted. Meats that have been out for too long or raw vegetables that have been washed in unfiltered water mean bad news for Western backpackers. When you find yourself spending a night in the hostel bathroom—because, likely, you will—you'll wish you had these carbon pills to restore your health.

13 Sarong

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In these Asian countries, there are Buddhist and Hindu temples on every corner, it seems. Tourists line up at their gates to marvel at the grand architecture and royal colors, to understand their spiritual presence and participate in religious ceremonies. Only those who are dressed appropriately are allowed in, and that includes full coverage for legs, shoulders, and torsos. To avoid wearing pants and sleeved tops every day in the sweltering Southeast Asia sun, many carry sarongs to drape over their shoulders or tie around their waists. This multi-purpose garment can also be used as blankets on buses or bikini cover-ups after a waterfall swim.

12 Water Purifier Bottle

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One of the perils of traveling Southeast Asia is the need to stay hydrated in the heat versus the area's lack of natural drinking water, which constantly forces tourists to buy disposable water bottles from local shops. This is a problem because 60 percent of the global plastic waste being leaked into oceans come from just five Southeast Asian countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand—according to a 2015 report by Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, and tourism is a huge culprit. Save some money and the planet by investing in a self-purifying water bottle before you go.

11 Sunblock 

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Traveling to any sun-soaked country requires packing sunscreen, but for Southeast Asia, specifically, this is a buy-before-you-go item. Not only is sunblock expensive in these countries—it costs about $12-20 in Thailand, which is pricey by the local standard, considering a bottle of hair conditioner costs about $5—but it also often includes whitening agents. Western visitors will soon realize that a large percentage of the Asian population longs for white skin. The Thai beauty brand Namu Life SnailWhite is a cult-classic item that includes skin whitening properties derived from snail slime, according to Forbes. So, if you aren't interested in snail mucus sunscreen—or any other whitening creams—then consider bringing these toiletries from home.

10 Portable Charger

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It seems as though mobile phone batteries rarely last a full day of travel. Seasoned backpackers know to prepare for the inevitable moment when they're lost somewhere on the streets of Singapore with heavy packs on their backs and, suddenly, the phone dies and leaves no hope for using Google Maps. Pocket-sized chargers come in handy for long days of navigating, or simply to keep your technology charged for long rides on buses, boats, and trains, because there's hardly a more intimidating scenario than being in a foreign country without a functioning phone.

9 International Driver's License

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Driving a motorbike through lush jungle and along the charming coast of Vietnam is the quintessential Southeast Asia experience. Travelers who plan to participate in this highly cultural activity should obtain an international driver's license beforehand. Many tourists do drive without them, and they often get stopped by law enforcement because, well, it's difficult to disguise white skin and Western hair. Police in these areas are often so corrupt that they can usually be bribed rather than demanding to write an official offense, but the amounts they demand are arbitrary. Depending on how frequently you plan to drive, carrying the appropriate license might be cheaper in the long run.

8 Travel Insurance

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Speaking of driving motorbikes, crashes happen. So do stolen bags and flight cancellations, all of which can often be covered by travel insurance. The cost of travel insurance depends on the traveler's age, length of travel, and what's included in the insurance plan. These plans typically cost between 4 and 10 percent of the total trip cost. While it isn't meant to be a replacement for health insurance, travel insurance covers emergency medical care and sometimes prescription refills, too. It also covers non-medical accidents, such as, say, a tour provider going bankrupt after charging your account or an airline losing your luggage.

7 Microfiber Towel

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Listen up, hostel hoppers: a microfiber towel is a must. Unlike nicer—read: more expensive—accommodation at hotels, hostels don't usually give out complimentary towels. You'll need to pack your own, and you won't want to lug around any old standard-size, thick-cotton bath towel, either, especially if it's wet. Your back will appreciate that microfiber travel towels are lightweight and compact. On days that you find yourself in a rush to obey the 10 a.m. checkout time, you'll thank your travel towel for its quick-drying properties.

6 DEET Mosquito Repellent

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DEET, the chemical commonly used in mosquito repellents, is notoriously unhealthy. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released a report on the dangers of DEET, which included dermal and neurological effects; however, these cases, according to Popular Science, are very rare. The reality is that mosquitos are abundant in humid Southeast Asian countries, and they sometimes carry malaria and dengue. Westerners are advised to take malaria tablets such as Doxycycline, but the best way to prevent disease is to not get bitten. In Southeast Asia, insect repellent is a must and DEET is the go-to.

5 Padlock

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Traveling in Southeast Asia means you will frequently be separated from your luggage. On bus journeys, packs are kept underneath the bus, in a section that is regularly opened and accessed by locals throughout the trip—often times while you're sleeping. There will also be days when you're between hostels and need to keep your bag in a—sometimes unlocked—luggage room with dozens of other bags. In these cases, padlocking your pack is the best way to prevent people from getting into it or snatching it altogether. Locks are also useful for hiding away your valuables in hostel lockers while you're out or sleeping.

4 Bandana

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Bandanas are the modern-day version of an old-school, multi-purpose handkerchief. They can be used to keep hair out of your face, control sweatiness on hot days (most days), as a reusable washcloth, and, occasionally, to style up drab travel clothes. Tie it around your neck, wear it as a headband, or keep it tucked away in your bag. Put it over your eyes when you need a nap on the bus or use it as a mask to cover your face on motorbike rides. If you have a generic-looking pack, you can attach a bandana to the outside to make it more identifiable in the airport baggage claim.

3 Waterproof Backpack Cover

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Many travel backpacks come with rain covers, but sometimes you need to buy your own. In Southeast Asia, especially during the wet summer months, you will almost definitely get stuck in the rain. Nobody wants a pack full of wet clothes or, even worse, wet technology, so it's important to keep the pack protected with a waterproof cover. Sometimes, even if it isn't raining, the undercarriage of the bus or boat where your pack is being stored is wet, so many travelers use their rain covers during those travel days, too.

2 Earplugs

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Sometimes you'll hit it off with a hostel dorm-mate, spend the day together, then go to sleep and realize your new friend is a loud snorer. If you're hostel hopping, it's inevitable that you'll be sharing rooms with snorers and drunk travelers who make a ruckus at 3 a.m. Sometimes you won't be sleeping in a bed at all, but rather in the seat of a noisy bus, a plane, or a train. Earplugs are a must if you expect to get any sleep, and an eye mask is a bonus if you're bold enough to wear one.

1 American Dollars

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Many Southeast Asian countries take U.S. dollars, Frommer's says, especially in hostels and hotels. In fact, on the borders of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the stamping fee is charged in American currency even for non-Americans. It's cheaper to take cash out in the U.S. and travel with it—not too much, of course, in case it gets lost or stolen—than to exchange the local currency for U.S. dollars in foreign countries. In Vietnam and Cambodia, specifically, American cash "is king," USA Today says.

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