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.
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:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?