Packing it all in to go backpacking in Southeast Asia is pretty daunting as it is. Of course you are going to explore one of the most culturally-rich and adventure-filled places in the world and I’m sure you have a bucket list as long as your arm to tick off whilst you’re out there, from tubing in Vang Vieng to sailing Halong Bay. But it can still be overwhelming.
But being a solo female backpacker adds a whole load of extra worries into the mix. For starters, will you be safe out there? Do you need to know the local customs? And more importantly, what are you going to wear?! Ok that’s not the most important but it’s still something you need to think about. What make-up do you need to bring? How many bikinis?
Well fear not, here’s a whole bunch of top tips from blogger Heels in my Backpack on backpacking Southeast Asia, especially for the solo female crowd. We got this.
Although there are lots of wonderful things to look forward to on your Southeast Asia adventure, the first thing to consider is staying safe out there. As a popular destination for tourists, you will likely not run into any danger, but it’s always best to be prepared.
There’s a new scam every day in Southeast Asia, but a lot of the classics involve overnight buses. The coaches that take you between destinations sometimes have thieves operating so you need to be smart about your belongings. Sometimes thieves can be in the compartment under the coach where your luggage is, looking for valuables.
They’re not going to take your fave bikini or anything, but just don’t put anything expensive like laptops or cameras in your backpack. Keep it all with you in your handbag and don’t let go of it.
It’s perfectly safe to sleep, they’re not going to come up to you and outright rob you. But if you leave your bag on the floor, it could be pick-pocketed whilst you’re catching some Z’s.
A great safety tip is to bring a cross-body bag with you on your trip. Thieves in Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, are known to drive past on motorbikes and snatch handbags. Cross-body bags make sure your valuables are kept on you at all times.
Another popular scam is in Thailand where the men selling flashing lights that go up in the air (usually on Khao San Road) will have a friend picking your pocket whilst you’re looking up at the pretty lights. I always recommend keeping one hand on your bag, just to be safe.
Get home safe
Finally, make sure you’re being careful getting home from nights out. If you meet new friends, try to walk home together, or better yet, move to their hostel so you don’t have to go anywhere alone. The rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t walk home on your own in the dark at home, why would you do it in a country you’re unfamiliar with? Let’s not be silly.
Ok enough of the scams, let’s get to the good stuff. Once you’ve made the decision to go backpacking, you inevitably get to the thought ‘Wait, what clothes am I going to pack?’
You need outfits that are practical if you’re off galavanting on your adventures, but you also want to look fabulous in the Facebook photos that make your friends jealous. You want to pack clothes than minimise tan lines, but then again, you also want to be respectful to the country you’re in. And you want to pack for all weathers and situations, but your backpack is looking smaller and smaller by the minute…
How are you meant to cover all bases? Don’t worry, here’s some solid tips to get over the travelling fashion dilemmas!
The key to avoid overpacking is to create the perfect capsule wardrobe. You have to make sure that every separate you’re taking with you goes with every other separate in your arsenal. For example those printed trousers you want to take need to go with all of the tops you are bringing. That way you can easily mix and match your clothes, to give you more outfit choices!
Also make sure you’re going for clothes that are lightweight, roll up small and stay true to your personal style. There’s nothing worse than getting a once in a lifetime photo in front of Angkor Wat and later realising you hate what you’re wearing in it.
When you’re travelling in Southeast Asia, swimwear is a major part of your fashion game, so it’s important to bring a good selection (4 or 5 options is ideal). But you need to be smart in your choices. Make sure that all of your bikinis have different straps – there’s nothing worse that bright white tan lines and alternating your strap options will spread the tan a bit more evenly.
Another tip is to make sure that you bring a swimsuit with you. Even if it isn’t really your style, in some areas of Southeast Asia bikinis are not socially acceptable and it is more respectable to go for a one piece.
Although it’s most likely going to be hot out there, you need to make sure that you bring at least one outfit that covers your shoulders and your knees. Temples require this from visitors as a sign of respect and locals will call you out on it if you stroll in with a skimpy ensemble on. Big no-no. This doesn’t need to be extreme, a tee and palazzo pants would be perfect (and look completely chic).
If you can’t bear the thought of wearing sleeves at the temples, no matter how short, a good alternative is a sarong to cover your shoulders. A sarong is lightweight and takes barely any room in your backpack, yet has loads of uses for a solo female backpacker. A cover-up for the temples is one thing, but a sarong can also be your beach towel, a blanket on overnight buses and trains, or a scarf if it is unseasonably chilly. You’ve got to love a multi-functional item.
Ok here’s the secret… accessories are key to being fashionable on your travels. You can wear the same pair of denim shorts every day and rotate a few tops, but add a statement necklace, a printed headscarf or some cute sunglasses and your look is transformed. I wouldn’t suggest bringing any expensive jewellery with you in case it gets lost or stolen, but make sure you bring lots of accessories to make the most of your capsule wardrobe.
Save some room
A final tip on the fashion-front, is to save some room in your luggage! Chances are you’re going to want to be a total backpacker cliché and pick up a Chang vest or a Full Moon Party crop top on your travels (it’s okay, we all do it), so just make sure your backpack isn’t full to the brim! You’ll need room for all of the friendship bracelets and faux Casio watches…
Right, you’re sorted on the backpacker ensemble, but how about beauty products? How many should you take? What’s essential and what’s just being a princess? Here’s the low-down on sitting pretty in Ho Chi Minh City.
Some backpackers will straight-up tell you to leave the make-up at home. And that’s fine for some girls. But if you wear make-up everyday at home, and refuse to be seen without your eyebrows drawn on, that’s not going to fly for you. It’s important to keep make-up to the essentials, you don’t need 10 different eyeshadow options, but be realistic about what you do need.
BB Cream is a great option if you’re deliberating over the foundation. Foundation can be heavy and suffocate you a little in the heat, plus you’re going to tan so your products might not match your skin tone any more, but BB Cream blends into your skin, gives you even coverage and even has SPF. Thumbs up.
Bring the essentials – mascara, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil and add in the bronzer or blusher you prefer. That’s the bare minimum, along with an SPF lip balm which is an absolute must. If you also want to bring something to make you feel a bit special, bring your favourite lipstick. If you’re wearing denim shorts and a vest top to a bar in Siem Reap, that lipstick will make all the difference to how you feel.
Suncream is obviously vital in Southeast Asia. Even if you don’t burn easily, that Thai sun will get you, I promise. Apply liberally, folks.
It’s also important to bring a moisturiser for all of the hardcore journeys you’re taking. It doesn’t need to be a big bottle so won’t take up much room, but the air-con on planes, buses and trains completely dehydrates your skin. You’ll be thankful to have an intensive moisturiser to hand.
In terms of other things you need, insect-repellent is definitely something you need to invest in (mosquito bites are not a good look for anyone), but wait until you’re out there to buy it. Locals know the best products and will be able to point you in the right direction. And let’s face it, it’ll probably be cheaper too. Make sure you grab some Tiger Balm as well to treat any bites and stop them from itching.
If you need to top up on toiletries such as shampoo or conditioner, it is readily available in Southeast Asia, in brands that you will recognise. Don’t waste time packing enough to last your whole trip, it’s a waste of your precious space. Although one thing to watch out for is the fact that some products in Southeast Asia have whitening properties. Being pale in Southeast Asia is desirable, like being tanned in Western countries, so make sure you check the labels. You don’t want to buy deodorant and end up with white underarms…
Dry shampoo is a life-saver when you’re backpacking. You may have to wake up early to make a flight and don’t have time to wash your hair, or the showers in the hostel were all full and you didn’t have time to wait. A spritz of dry shampoo and you’re good to go.
In terms of hairdryers and straighteners, it’s dependant on your hair type really. If you regularly use them at home, chances are you’ll want them when you’re away. Although remember that the heat will dry your hair a lot quicker. Thicker hair may need a dryer, finer hair will probably dry whilst you’re doing your make-up. The choice is yours.
SOUTHEAST ASIA ETIQUETTE
Finally, it’s important to remember some all essential etiquette lessons when you’re in Southeast Asia. We’ve already covered the temple attire (cover the shoulders and knees), but there are a few more you need to be aware of.
Shoes off please
In Southeast Asian countries, shoes need to be removed before entering some buildings. This can range from shops to internet cafes, so a rule of thumb is to look out for shoes lined up outside. Then you know you should be taking yours off to. Although beware that in backpacker-heavy areas you will see a pile of identical black Havaianas outside. Make sure yours stand out so someone doesn’t walk off with your shoes!
Learn the language
If you’re doing the classic backpacker loop around Southeast Asia, most people you encounter will be pretty fluent in English. But nevertheless, it’s polite to learn the basics wherever you are, especially as locals will always greet you in the local language, so you should be replying the same way. Do your research before you go to each country and memorise hello, goodbye, thank you and please in the local language. Kob khun ka. (That’s Thai for thank you FYI.)
Some other etiquette lessons
There are quirks in each of the Southeast Asian countries that you need to make sure you’re aware of, so do your research into the specific countries. Here’s a few to start you off… Never let a Thai man lose face. Don’t show the soles of your feet. Never leave chopsticks upright in a rice bowl in Vietnam (it’s offensive). Women can’t touch monks in Cambodia. Kissing in public is frowned upon in Laos. Never touch someone on top of their head. Okay, class dismissed.
That’s your lot. As a solo female backpacker you are officially educated in staying safe, being respectful and looking fabulous whilst you’re doing it. Now go enjoy yourself, ladies.
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