What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush

When I moved to Southeast Asia in the summer of 2014, I was completely unprepared.  I literally only had three weeks’ notice before I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, and I basically did the world’s worst packing job.

Like a lot of newbie expats who are moving to Southeast Asia I (mistakenly) assumed that household goods, clothes, body products, etc. would not only be readily available in this part of the world but that they would be less expensive than in the US.  In certain cases this was true, but for the most part a lot of my go-to items were either not available, were really expensive or were of poor quality.

When I first moved to Jakarta I was baffled at how many strange things I couldn’t find.  Things like dinner knives, shower curtain rods, top sheets and Kraft Mac and Cheese eluded me during my entire 11-month stay.  Literally who knew you couldn’t find these things in a city of 10 million people?  Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have expected to find Kraft brand mac and cheese…but still.

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush
It’s just not the same…

Another shocker for me was that certain things like clothes, wine and toiletries were incredibly expensive in Indonesia.  And buying my favorite American brands wasn’t really an option.

While I did pack a small stash of my favorite products from back home it didn’t take long before I realized that I should have brought a year’s supply of everything with me.  There were many things that I just had to live without during my year in Jakarta.

So, when I found out I was moving to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, earlier this year I was determined to pack differently.  As someone who has lived and learned the hard way, here are a few tips on what you should pack if you’re moving to Southeast Asia.

What to pack when moving to Southeast Asia:

Kitchenware

In many Southeast Asian countries kitchenware (i.e. pots, pans, etc.) tends to be overpriced and of really low quality.  When I moved to Jakarta I assumed that I’d be able to purchase pots, pans, cutlery and dishware at a fraction of the price that I would pay in the US.  But I was so wrong.  A large frying pan put me back around $30 and the handle broke on the very first day!

When I moved to Cambodia I brought as much kitchenware as I could fit in my luggage – most of which was being stored for me in my mom’s garage anyway – including pots and pans, silverware and even my tea kettle!  Not only does it feel really good to have my actual kitchen tools here in Cambodia but the quality is far superior to anything I could afford in Phnom Penh.

Packing tip: Obviously if you have a strict budget, packing or shipping heaving items like pots and pans might cost you. When I purchased my plane ticket from California to Cambodia I made sure to find an airline that had a decent weight limit and baggage allowance.  Definitely make sure to shop around and research your luggage allowance because it varies greatly!

Bedding

I packed two sets of sheets when I moved to Cambodia.  Best decision ever!  In many Southeast Asian countries it’s common to find fitted bottom sheets and comforters, but top sheets are a rarity.

I have searched high and low for top sheets in cities like Jakarta and Singapore and I haven’t been able to find them.  Personally I find it to be way too hot in Southeast Asia to use a comforter.  Plus it’s really nice to have soft, quality sheets to sleep on every night!

Deodorant

I only brought two sticks of deodorant from the States when I moved to Jakarta.  I just assumed that because the city is filled with fancy malls that I would easily find my favorite brands.  Not the case…

Another thing I quickly learned is that lot of Southeast Asian skin products have skin whitening agents in them – including deodorant!  And while it is possible to find non-skin whitening deodorants, it seems like the majority of deodorants are either liquid roll on and/or have a much higher percentage of aluminum in them than US brands (not ideal for long-term use).  When I moved to Cambodia I made sure to pack one year’s supply of my favorite deodorant.

Insect repellent

I hate mosquitoes but they are a fact of life here in Southeast Asia.  And unfortunately, mosquitoes love me.  I either need to cover up in long pants when I go out at night or I need to use insect repellent.

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush
In Southeast Asia mosquitoes are especially vicious during sunrise and sunset.

I’ve traveled a lot in Southeast Asia and insect repellent tends to be on the expensive side here because locals don’t use it.  So when I was visiting California this summer I ended up packing enough to last me for about a year.

I also stocked up on a ton of these amazing wipes called Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes.  I love these things because I can just throw them in my purse and discretely apply them without offending everyone around me by spraying noxious repellent!

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush
Love, love these things!

Sunscreen

Sunscreen is another fairly expensive commodity in Southeast Asia.  In Jakarta a tiny 3-ounce tube cost over $10 at my local drug store.  When you’re dealing with the tropical sun day in and day out you tend to go through sunscreen fairly quickly…at least I do.

I brought quite a few tubes of body sunscreen with me.  But more importantly I’m fanatical about applying face sunscreen whenever I leave the house.  So I also packed a bunch of tubes of my favorite face sunscreen, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunscreen (SPF 45) with me because I knew I was going to use it every day and I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to buy this specific brand in Phnom Penh.

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush

Clothes, bras & underwear

You can definitely find all of these things in Southeast Asia.  Actually many Southeast Asian cities are famous for their inexpensive tailor-made clothes.   But if you’re not one for getting your clothes made, shopping for specific styles and sizes can be difficult in Southeast Asia, especially if you’re on the tall or curvy side.  So if you have a favorite style of bra or tend to be larger than a size two bring your go-to clothing and underwear items with you.

This goes for guys and girls, shoes and sandals run very small in Southeast Asia.  So if your feet are on the larger size, you might want to pack your own.

Packing tip: When I moved to Cambodia, I put my clothes in vacuum sealed bags (I used these big Ziploc Space Bags and I was able to save a TON of space.  You can literally vacuum seal everything from clothes to towels to bedding.  I cannot believe I didn’t think of using vacuum sealed bags when I moved to Jakarta!

What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia - Travel Lush
I was able to fit twice the amount of clothes in each suitcase with these babies!

Makeup

I don’t wear tons of makeup, but I do use the basics.  I was super bummed out when I ran out of my favorite foundation during month eight of living in Jakarta.  It was too expensive to order online so I finally broke down and bought an Indonesian brand.  In the end, I just couldn’t find one that I liked.  Not to mention, trying to find a foundation that matched my exact skin tone was a bit of a challenge.  This time around I brought enough to last the year.

Medications, vitamins & pills

A lot of people assume that Southeast Asia is a simple and cheap region to purchase medications.  And in a sense it’s true.  There are literally pharmacies on every block in all the major cities and most small towns, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to find what you’re looking for.  There are actually a lot of restrictions on pharmaceuticals that varies from country to country.  Also, the language barrier can be an issue.

Things like Immodium, Advil and Pepto-Bismol don’t really exist here.  And if you are lucky enough to find the brands and products you’re used to it will cost you.  While living in Jakarta, I found myself yearning for the days I could go to Target (I’m such an American) and buy loads of cheap medicine.  So when I moved to Cambodia I packed absurd amounts of these things with me.

In places like Thailand and the Philippines vitamins are also comically expensive.  If you’re moving to Southeast Asia and have specific medications or pharmaceuticals that you know you’re going to need, it’s best to stock up on them in your home county.

Tampons

Clearly this one is for the ladies.  Many Asian women do not use tampons.  And if you do find them they will cost you a pretty penny.  Definitely bring enough to last you for your entire stay.

Towels

Bath and kitchen towels are surprisingly pricey in places like Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.  Don’t get me wrong, you will find them at malls and markets across Southeast Asia but the quality is terrible.  In Jakarta a single bath towel went for $10-20!  A common complaint is that towels in this region seem to repel instead of absorb water.  In my opinion, it’s best to pack your own.

Packing tip:  Wash and dry new towels a few times before you move so they absorb better.  Also, try to get towels that aren’t too thick.  Remember, you’re moving to Southeast Asia so you’re probably line drying your laundry…

Comfort foods

This is obviously going to vary depending on where you’re from, but as an American I tend to miss the weirdest foods from back home.  I definitely made an effort to pack non-perishables with me when I moved to Cambodia.  I brought packets of Kraft Mac & Cheese powder, bottles of Tabasco, packets of Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing mix and peanut butter M&Ms (my favorite!).  I probably should have also brought a few jars of peanut butter, tortillas and Tapatillo hot sauce.

kraft mac and cheese 1
Now that’s the stuff!

While a lot of these tips can apply to backpackers and long-term travelers who are packing for Southeast Asia, if you’re looking for a dedicated Southeast Asia travel packing list, Emily over at Let’s Roam Wild wrote a detailed post about everything she packed for her five-month trip to Southeast Asia.   And Kristin at Be My Travel Muse has a great packing post about her recent four-month trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

*There are affiliate links in this post.  So if you click on an Amazon link and buy something, I get a small percentage. But don’t worry, there’s no extra cost to you.  And you can rest assured that all of these products have been used by yours truly.  I would never recommend something I don’t personally use myself.

Have you lived or traveled long term in Southeast Asia?  If so, do you have anything to add to this list?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

30 thoughts on “What to Pack When Moving to Southeast Asia

  1. this post is great! I’m really enjoying all these real posts about expat life and traveling as its info you really need to know.

    Whenever I visit friends in Indoneisa I know the ultimate gift list is:

    Wine
    Chocolate
    Bras

    That luxury tax really does make life harder! I’m in Cambodia next week, would be lovely to catch up for a veggie dinner and chat if you are free?
    Dan recently posted…Weekend Escapes: 8 Europe Winter Destinations

    1. Thanks Dan 🙂 I wish I had read this post before moving to Indonesia. Hopefully others can learn from my mistakes. Haha, I love how random that Indonesia gift list is. But it’s so true…the weirdest stuff can be so hard to find. And wine is REALLY expensive in Indonesia. Yes, when will you be in Phnom Penh?

    1. Maple syrup is a good one. In Indonesia the syrup was way too sweet. I haven’t tried it in Cambodia yet, but something tells me it will be the same. Ah, I should have brought some with me!!

  2. Great list, Justine. I’ve had trouble finding quite a few of these things when I lived in Asia. Though I’m sorry to tell you, if you ever happen to move to the UK, we don’t get any of the flavoured m&m’s there. Unless things have drastically changed since I last lived there, we can only get the regular choc or crunchy peanut ones. I used to buy the peanut butter ones in a special import store for American candy! I love how many different peanut butter flavoured things there are now I’m in the US!
    Joella recently posted…Big Love For Big Sur

    1. What?! I’m shocked you don’t have fun flavors of M&Ms in the UK. Haha, I love that you had a special store for American candy. I wish we had one of those in Phnom Penh…This is random but have you ever had peanut butter-filled pretzels? Those are so addictive 🙂

  3. ‘Such a great list Justine!

    I did my GAP year years ago so I can’t really remember about what I took except for bags of tea and English newspapers! Ha! You can’t believe what a godsend they are. I live in Germany and the tea here is awful so I always get people to bring teabags, and cheese, and prawn and cocktail /salt n’ vinegar crisp (potato chips), and biscuits. I don’t like chocolate unless it’s a particular brand – Cadburys – so that’s an issue. Oh, and lemon curd (it’s a type of jam) and treacle toffee!

    As for shoes! I have huge feet for a slim, petite girl such as myself. In Asia, I’m considered to be tall. And a giant. In fact, for most developing countries I might as well be a man. Because of the way I walk. Oh and the size of my feet LOL!

    p.s. I don’t wear a lot of make-up but it takes years to find the right lipstick. Take your own!
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…I’m going to Warsaw – It’s going to be astonishing and quite wacky!

    1. I love hearing what other expats pack with them, especially when it comes to food. It’s so funny how important having those comfort foods is when you’re abroad. Haha, our food lists are so different. I love comparing the British and American must-haves 🙂 Cheese is a major issue here in Asia. I love cheese and it’s pretty much impossible to find any decent cheese in Phnom Penh. But the funny thing is that I continue to buy it at a premium even though I know I won’t like it. I keep hoping I’ll come across a good brand!

      Ha, I’m considered pretty short in the US and I have small feet, so I fit right in here! But I’m definitely not a size 2! I’m small but women are really petite here…

        1. I found some okay cheddar at the store the other day (a first for me in SE Asia). It’s definitely not the same but it actually tasted decent when melted on tacos 🙂

  4. Such an awesome post! I was shocked when I move to Bangkok last year the things I could and could not find – tampons was probably the biggest surprise for me…still quite baffled by that one to be honest!
    I am heading back to the UK tomorrow for a week and will definitely be stocking up on many of the things in your post as well as sunscreen (lack of choice and ridiculously expensive) and fajita seasoning!
    x

    1. I know…it’s always a shocker. I only knew about the Tampons thing because I’d traveled in Southeast Asia for years before I moved here. Otherwise, I would have had no clue. Yay, bring back anything you can think of. I kick myself on a daily basis for not bringing more non-perishables. Have a good trip home 🙂

    1. Haha, I’m so glad I’m not alone in my obsession with Mac and Cheese. When I was in Singapore I was overjoyed when I found some mac at a random grocery store. I bought 10 boxes and the woman checking me out looked at me like I was insane.

    1. Yeah, kitchenware wasn’t high on my list when I moved to Jakarta. But I guess I do cook a lot, so I REALLY missed decent pots and pans, etc. I’m so glad I was able to bring some of my stuff with me this time around! Haha, and yes, I can’t get enough street food in SE Asia 🙂

  5. It is funny how everyone has their “luxury items” which is what Tom and I call the things you pack because you just want to have them! It sounds like your “luxury item” would be mac and cheese. Tom has been traveling with a feather pillow for the last 5 years and I have been known to stash a bottle of hot sauce in my bag when traveling through a country with bland food 🙂
    Jenny @ Till The Money Runs Out recently posted…A New Orleans Swamp Tour Good Enough to do Twice!

    1. Aaron and I travel with hot sauce too! I’ve been known to carry around a bottle of Tabasco in my purse so I can douse it on my eggs in the morning 🙂

  6. I loved reading all your blog posts about Cambodia tonight and all the comments the other folks added.
    My husband and I are moving to PP in late January or Feb and can have quite a bit of food items shipped for us from his employer so I am researching like crazy to see what folks wish they had brought. Funny, I don’t eat mac and cheese anymore now that my kids are grown but I bet it would be a nice thing to have on those home sick days.
    I’d be happy to bring you a few things that you are wishing you had when we come.
    Please add more things as you think of them.
    We have heard about the lotions and sunscreens. Plan on bringing favorite toothpaste, spam, toothbrushes, razors peanut butter. What about spices, honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, whiskey, gin? Not all things we have to have but things we are wondering about.
    Plan on bringing bedding, towels, kitchen cooking (pots, pans, garlic press, I am sure other things) and dishes and flatware.
    We are tall with big feet, so all those things, too.
    What else?

    1. I suppose it all depends on where you’re from and what sorts of products you use. If you have the ability, just stock up on any and all non-perishables that you know you can’t get here. Toothpaste is everywhere here but I did bring a ton of floss because it’s hard to find. You can get peanut butter here but it’s a bit pricey and you might have a fave brand they don’t have here. You might want to bring some seeds of some of your favorite spices/plants and have an herb garden. But for the most part I think you can find most spices here? I could be wrong on that. Like I can’t find rosemary and I wish I would have brought seeds. Honey, olive oil and even balsamic are all available and reasonably priced. And imported alcohol like whiskey and gin are everywhere and very reasonably priced. Yeah, I would just bring all the cookware you can since you know you’ll use it and it’s not causing you anything extra to ship because of your employer. I’m very glad I brought my kitchen supplies, but I cook a lot so it was important. I just wish I could have fit my coffee maker in my luggage 😉 Good luck with the move and let me know if you need any other advice 🙂

  7. What a great post! While I haven’t lived over there, I know what it’s like to assume you’ll easily be able to stock up on something on my travels around that area and being caught out.

    Or alternatively, carrying a month’s supply of something and then seeing it on the shelves for a fraction of the price I paid back home.

    And I must admit I chuckled at the Kraft point. I just sent a very large box filled with boxes of BBQ Shapes (an Aussie biscuit) to an expat friend in Berlin. I didn’t realise he was craving them when i went to stay so had to post them after i got home. From now on I’ll be packing BBQ shapes in my suitcase when I go over there for him. All the better for holding shopping space to be used on the way home 🙂
    Amanda @ Adventures All Around recently posted…Visiting the Burmese Cat Village at Inle Lake, Myanmar

    1. You’re such a good friend Amanda! I’m sure your friend is eternally grateful 🙂 I actually went to my local grocery store in Phnom Penh the other day and there is now a whole section of Kraft mac and cheese! I almost died of excitement!!!!

  8. Amazing post! There is so much to learn from your experience about moving and packing for Southeast Asia. It’s great to read your recommendations, that are extremely useful. Thanks for sharing

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