A Guide to Traveling Light: How I Backpacked Through Asia With Only a Small Schoolbag

By Adam J. Pearson.

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Introduction – Packing Light?

This past summer, I went on the greatest traveling adventure of my life thus far. I traveled through 11 different cities in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and spent a little time in Japan, within a period of 3 weeks. During this time, I met many amazing people, traveled through caves, mountains, rivers, big cities, small villages, and temples, and experienced things that changed my life forever.

Throughout my travels, I came across many backpackers from abroad and when I did, I was often amazed by the insanely large and incredibly hefty bags that these ladies and gentlemen were lugging around. Look at this guy, for example; he can barely move!

backpacker

The other extreme that I sometimes saw were people who dragged around ridiculous amounts of luggage such as suitcases that were so heavy and abundant that they nearly broke the wheels off of the baggage carriers used to pull them through the airport. I mean, look at what this family packed:

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When I went to Mexico, I vowed never to travel with a suitcase again. The burden of having to carry it, the delay of waiting in line to check it, the hazard of airports potentially losing your luggage between flights, and the time spent fearfully waiting to pick it up all make suitcases incredibly inconvenient.

What if you could just show up at an airport for a great adventure, board your plane with a light backpack, and hop off ready to leave the airport immediately? What if you never had to wait in line for checked luggage, fear the loss of your suitcases, or endure the unnecessary draining of your energy while you haul your baggage around like Sisyphus pushing his great boulder? Wouldn’t that be great? In this article, I’d like to share a few tips for how I did it and how you can too. The good news is that it’s easier than you might expect. And your back will love you for it.

What I Packed for Three Weeks in Asia

What did I bring with me on my Asian adventure? Nothing but this:

backpack

As you can see, the backpack into which I managed to fit all of this was nothing but an ordinary school backpack, the same one I had used during my university studies. On the outside of the bag, I attached an information tag with my name and address and a Canadian flag on the back, because whenever you travel abroad, you are always an ambassador for your home country.

Here’s the final list of items that I brought with me:

Clothing:

  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 t-shirts [Note: all three t-shirts are made of a special fast-drying fabric that is excellent for travelers]
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 pair of shorts / bathing suit with a pocket
  • 1 pair cheap sunglasses [keep your designer glasses at home so as not to lose them, break them, or flaunt wealth to pickpockets]
  • 1 pair of North Face sandals

 I didn’t bring flipflops to Asia because the thong between the toes can become very grating and painful over time; these sandals were very comfortable and were securely strapped to my feet so that they wouldn’t be lost in monsoon flooding or river water after kayaking.

In addition, for my trip to the airport, I additionally wore a t-shirt, boxers, socks, sneakers, and a pair of grey Columbia travel pants (they are available in women’s and children’s styles as well). These pants were a little costly at 79.95$ Canadian at the local Sports Experts, but they were the greatest investment I made for this trip. These pants are light-weight, fast-drying, have zippered pockets which render pick-pocketing difficult, and have zippered bottoms so they can easily be converted into shorts.

They look like this:

travel
Because I washed them every night in my hostel sink, I was able to wear them almost every day, with the exception of the days I wore my bathing suit as shorts or wore the Thai pants that I picked up in Chiang Mai.

What about towels?

You don’t need them. They get heavy and end up stinking horribly due to retained moisture, they take up a lot of room, and they are totally unnecessary. Airdrying in Asia happens very quickly. Moreover, many hotels, hostels, and guesthouses allow guests to sign out swimming towels for free. And if you really want a towel, you can buy one for cheap during your travels and keep it as a souvenir.

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Important Note About Clothes: You might be tempted to pack more clothes than you need. Resist the urge. Nearly everyone I met during my travels bought local clothes to wear such as dresses, Thai pants, and regional shirts. Every woman I talked to said she wished she had packed less clothes so she could have bought more. Trust me on this. If you feel tempted to overpack clothes, pack everything you think you will need. Then take 50% of that out and don’t bring it. Be ruthless on this point.

Another reason you will want to minimize the clothes you pack is that when you’re traveling in humid places, fabrics tend to absorb a great deal of humidity. As they do so, they get heavier, which is not only a strain on your back, but can also be a strain on your wallet due to the additional fees it can cost you to carry them on to your plane. In addition, you may want to have as much room as possible for souvenirs and local clothing you pick up on your way. If you pack too many pieces of clothing, you won’t have room for those cool Thai pants or that sexy dress you joyfully discover in the Luang Prabang night market.

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The majestic Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

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Bathroom Products:

  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 63g Old Spice deodorant
  • A 45g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste
  • 3 100 ml bottles filled with a Nivea Men’s 3-in-1 shampoo, body wash, and face wash [I also used this as shaving cream and hair gel when I ran out]
  • 1 small container of hair gel
  • 2 100 ml bottles of biodegradable laundry detergent
  • 1 razor
  • 1 beard trimmer
  • 1 tooth-floss container
  • 1 face cloth
  • 2 rolls of toilet paper in a zip-lock bag to keep them dry for emergencies in public bathrooms that have neither toilet paper nor functioning bum-gun water hoses, as was the case in an unfortunate restroom I was forced to use on the side of a mountain in Laos.

All of the above items except the toilet paper and beard trimmer were packed into a a clear 1 L bag according to airport regulations for carry-ons. Remember to keep all your fluids under 100 mls or they will be confiscated unless they are in checked luggage.

Recall, however, that I’m advocating a way of packing with zero checked luggage, so the luxury of products over 100 ml is not one we can afford. This is okay, though.  You can buy any size products you want and simply pour them into the airport-friendly containers that you can buy, for instance, in 10-15$ bundles at Wal Mart or CAA.

First-Aid Kit:

  • Band-aids

 I never had to use them, but they’re good to have in case they are needed.

band

  • 1 Polysporin tube and some disinfectant wipes (e.g. Sporicidin)

 I also never had to use these, but they could have been handy for cleaning wounds prior to bandaging.

Polysporin-triple-antibiotic-ointment-with-heal-fast-formulaspori

  • 24 Gravol tablets, to combat nausea

These came in handy a few times when I had nausea due to feeling sick from the food. They also have drowsy properties, so I sometimes took one before bed when I was feeling nauseous and having trouble sleeping.

gravol

  • 36 Immodium tablets, to prevent unintentional diarrhea incidents while traveling

These tablets, in my humble opinion, are a MUST  when traveling in Asia. I used many of them myself and shared others with my fellow travelers on several occasions. Immodium tablets are not a solution to traveler’s diarrhea; the body needs to excrete what it needs to excrete. However, they are useful for tiding you over on a long bus ride, coach ride, plane ride, or other period of time when you won’t have easy access to a toilet. I cannot recommend bringing these enough.

You can also use charcoal tablets to settle the stomach, with less resulting constipation. However, these might not be as effective at preventing uncontrollable fecal explosions (doesn’t that sound delightful?) as Immodium.

Tip: to save space, recycle the boxes of the Immodium and Gravol and just pack the foil capsule packs.

immo

  • 1 or 2 doses of antibiotics of serious travel-related illness occurs

These were prescribed by the travel nurse I consulted before my trip. She recommended only taking them if I had blood in my stool or a fever, not for ordinary diarrhea, which is to be expected when traveling.

  • Tylenol [for headaches[
  • Malarone tablets

These are a must when traveling through Malaria-risk areas such as Vang Vieng and Vientiane in Laos, or the small villages we visited on the banks of the Mekong river. We took them beginning the day before we entered Laos, then one per day while we were there, and one per day for 7 additional days after leaving the Malaria-risk zone. I did not have any negative side effects from these apart from one night of nightmares.

mal

Other Miscellaneous Items:

  • Cell phone charger
  • Electric Plug Wall Adapters

    Note: I packed these, but didn’t end up needing them. Every place I stayed in in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam had these kind of hybrid sockets that worked for both North American electric plugs and Asian two-pronged style plugs. However, they are good to have in the event of these not being available, which can be the case in more rural areas that are less tourist-adapted, for instance.adap

  • 2 garbage bags

 I had one bag for damp clothes, and one in which to place my entire backpack at night to insulate it from bugs like Thailand and Laos’ notorious cockroaches and ubiquitous ants and spiders.

orange

I used this to block the sinks of whatever place at which I happened to be staying each night so that I could do laundry in them. Only once, in Luang Prabang, did I pay to have laundry done. Every other night, I did it myself using this wonderful gadget.

stoo

  • Zip-lock bags of different sizes

Zip-lock bags! Every traveler loves these and for good reason. I can’t say enough positive things about the importance of packing zip-lock bags. I went to South East Asia during the rainy season, so I put all of my money envelopes in zip lock bags to keep them dry. I also made two sets of photocopies of all my cards and passport. I placed those photocopies in zip lock bags and put one set in my backpack and one set in my waist-pouch so I’d be ready if I should lose any of those important documents.

In addition, I placed some money for the day or night in a small zip-lock bag and put *that* in my wallet so it would stay dry while I was kayaking or it was raining.

zip

  • Gum and tic-tacs [for kissable breath and preventing ear-popping on flights[

Note: you can buy different kinds of travel laundry-lines that you can hang up in your hostel room when you do our laundry at night. I would recommend choosing one of the following:

  1. One kind attaches around poles like shower rods. This one has useful little separators that keep your clothes from sliding along it and bunching together. The downside of this one that it requires poles on which to hang it. Some Asian bathrooms don’t have shower curtain rods and it would be hard to use this one in such rooms.type 1
  2. Another kind has clothes-pins built into it, which is neat, but could also be a little hard to hang in some places.type2
  3. The one I chose was a suction-cup-based laundry line, which can attach to most kinds of bathroom walls fairly easily. A downside of this line is that it doesn’t work on wooden walls and non-tile walls. In those cases, I just draped laundry over furniture or hung them up using coat hangers. However, its advantage is that it doesn’t require any kind of rod to hang it up. If you get this type, I’d recommend bringing some plastic clothespins so your clothes don’t slide down the line as mine may or may not have done…type3

The above items might seem like a lot, but they are truly not. They all fit inside that small schoolbag and I still had ample room left. In fact, I had so much room left that I was able to bring back souvenirs for seven different people!

With the items on this list, I felt I had everything I needed as I made my way from city to city and country to country. And I didn’t feel overburdened like some of my fellow travelers did. To help make your trip and packing even smoother, here are a few more tips that served me well while I was traveling.

1. Tip: Learn How to Roll Up Your Clothes Military Style

If you notice in the above picture of my backpack, all of my clothing items are tightly rolled up, as is my raincoat. This is a technique that the military uses to save space. Here’s a tutorial video for how to do it. The same basic principle can be used to fold underwear, shirts, sweaters, dresses, coats, and so on. As an added benefit, if you do roll tightly enough, the clothes will remain more or less wrinkle-free as well.


2. Tip: Secure Yourself Against Pick-Pockets

I carried my cell-phone in the zippered pocket of my Columbia travel pants, my wallet attached to a chain in the velcroed pocket, and wore a money-belt around my waist to hold my passport, medical insurance coverage information, credit card, and the majority of my money. In my hostel room or in bathroom stalls, I would transfer small amounts of money from my money belt to my wallet. That way, if my wallet ever got stolen, the thief would only manage to pilfer a small amount of my cash and none of my ID cards or important information and I would be able to continue on in peace. Some of the female travelers I met did the same thing, but with a purse in which they only carried a small amount of money for the day or night.  Most of their money, cards, and passports remained in their money-pouch around their waist.

I should add that I felt tremendously safe during my entire time in Asia. With this system in place, I felt confident that even if I was robbed, I would be alright. I cannot overly stress the value of zippered pockets. They take much longer to get into than simple open pockets or velcroed pockets and it’s much easier to feel someone unzipping a zipper than gently opening a flap. Again, however, so long as you are prudent and don’t carelessly leave your valuables exposed or flaunt your wealth, you can feel quite secure while traveling in South-East Asia.

3. Tip: Back Up Your Pictures As You Travel with Dropbox

dropbx

I carried no camera apart from my cell phone with me in Asia. However, I created a Dropbox account on my phone and set it up so that it would automatically upload all of my pictures to my Dropbox account whenever I was on Wifi. Many places in Asia offer Wifi, although it is something of a running joke in Thailand that the so-called ‘free Wifi’ offered at guesthouses and restaurants rarely ever works.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend setting up Dropbox autouploading for those times when you are able to find functioning Wifi, such as in Hanoi, Vietnam, where it tends to work more reliably than in Bangkok. This way, if your phone gets broken, lost, or stolen, your precious photographic memories will be safely backed up on an independent source. If you have a USB cable or a laptop, you can also upload pictures from an external camera in internet cafes or in your hostel, if you’re lucky enough to secure some viable Wifi.

Tip: Download Maps.Me On Your Phone

maps

Maps.Me! Words can’t express my love for this amazing app. Maps.me is a free app that you can download for your phone. It allows you to download map packages for entire countries for free so that you can navigate offline while abroad. It even uses your GPS location on your phone to help you track you routes in real-time. Moreover, it allows you to set Bookmarks for locations you want to visit on your maps so that they are easier to navigate to.

I used this app continuously while I was in Asia and I never once got lost. Before I traveled to Asia, I saved bookmarks for all of the key sites I wanted to visit on the map of each city, so when I arrived, I was ready to explore. I saved my hostels as bookmarks as well to make getting back easier. With this application, you can travel in foreign lands with peace of mind, even in the absence of English signage to guide you, since most of the maps in the app feature English characters. If you take the time to learn how to use it, you will not get lost… provided you don’t run out of battery, that is…

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Tip: Budget Carefully and Bring American Money

This useful website can help you to budget for your trip. While in Asia, I spent the equivalent of roughly 35-50 dollars USD per day (in Thai Baht, Lao Kip, and Vietnamese Dong) on food, museum and temple entries, taxis, tuktuks, and other expenses. This amount does not take into account the cost of accommodation. To save money in that domain, I’d highly recommend booking.com for booking your hostels in advance. I bought all the Thai Baht I would need in Canada before heading to Asia, converted to Kips at the Laos border, and converted to Vietnamese dong at my hotel in Vietnam.

If you don’t know how much you will need, it’s best to bring extra USD because it’s easy to convert in Asia, although there are ATMs available in many places. It is also good to have about 200-300 USD available as an emergency fund. I didn’t end up needing to use my emergency fund, but I have heard of people who have. As a side note, if you convert money in amounts greater than 100 dollars USD, you can often get better rates.

The good news for European, North American, and Australian travelers is that in South East Asia, Western money goes a long way. You can eat street food for 3-5 dollars per meal, in restaurants for 5-7, buy beers for 1-3 dollars, and get around via tuktuks and taxis for 5-10 dollars in most cases. If you’re frugal, you can get by with spending a lot less money than I did. I simply couldn’t resist the allure of ridiculously cheap and incredibly relaxing Thai and Lao massages…

Working with the farmers in the village of Naduang, Laos, while the village children played around us.

Working with the farmers in the village of Naduang, Laos, while the village children played around us.

Conclusion

As a closing remark, it is not only very possible to travel light for extensive periods of time, but also very easy as well. Having tasted this mode of travel, I never intend to return to the way of heavy packing and checked luggage ever again. If you give yourself (and your back) a break by packing with levity, I can assure you that you will not regret it. You’ll be dancing your way on and off planes while everyone around you is struggling simply to stumble and zooming out of airports while others wait in long queues for reclaim potentially lost checked luggage. In my humble experience, traveling light is a much more delightful way to move through the world and a much less stressful way as well. Happy travels!

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