Here is what I packed on a three week backpacking trip to Malaysia and Indonesia. Places I traveled to included a mix of cities, mountains, and beaches. I would pack similarly if I were traveling anywhere else in South East Asia given that this region shares the same tropical climate.

Each person has their own unique travel preferences. This post might not apply to other types of travelers.

As for me, traveling light is something I’m inclined to given that I like to move around a lot. It’s a skill I have yet to perfect as I learn first-hand what things I should bring that are really necessary and what I would’ve better left at home.

Trekking at Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park in East Java, Indonesia 

When on the move

When I’m moving between places, I only visibly carry two bags:

  • a medium-sized backpack
  • small sling bag

Any more than two bags, I tend to lose because of my habitual absentmindedness.

Photos were taken in my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on the last night of my trip. I thought of taking advantage that my backpack was neatly organized, which doesn’t always on the middle of the trip :)

Light Backpack

On this particular trip, I brought a lightweight top-loading backpack. It’s a Caterpillar (CAT) bag … probably 30L-40L, which is much smaller than what most backpackers are using. I loved this backpack because it’s small enough to put on my lap when I’m riding buses or even cramped commuter vans. I get paranoid whenever I leave my pack at the bottom compartment of buses. Keeping it within sight all the time gives me peace of mind.

There are also things I found lacking with this bag for such a long trip. It was the reason why I decided to buy another backpack: an Osprey Kestrel 48, which I used, later, on a 3-week trip to Malaysia and Southern Thailand.

While the simple CAT bag was survivable, the weight of my stuff (around 10-15kg in total) was just too heavy for it. The padded shoulder straps were too thin, it was too short (length-wise) for the padded waist belt to comfortably distribute the weight, no back frame. I know my back will thank made in the long run if invest in a backpack with better support.

Although bigger than my CAT bag, the Osprey Kestrel 48 is still aptly sized for portability. The extra room was actually helpful when packing snacks or bottled water on trips to off-the-grid places. I can just tighten the adjustment straps to make the bag more compact if needed.

Sling Bag

I don’t like to bring unwanted attention to my bags when I’m backpacking, which is why I choose bags that doesn’t look too flashy. I could pass through seedy/dingy streets and avoid “prying eyes. ”

I pack my most important stuff in my sling bag. I almost never take my sling bag off my body because it only ends in disaster when I do.

I use a Pacsafe Metrosafe 200 anti-theft shoulder bag. My previous sling bag was also a Pacsafe. I actually like their bags not for the (hyped-up) slash-proof shoulder strap / exomesh but for its “not overly shabby / simple sleek” look, and convenience. Pockets, compartments, zippers, hooks, are designed in the right places.

Organized in my sling bag are:

  • Pocket money for the day
  • Hidden money waist belt that I wear when I want to be extra careful … on overnight buses/trains for example
    • Local currency
    • ATM cards. I use BPI’s debit card with the Cirrus logo. I can easily withdraw money from most ATMs in South East Asian countries.
    • Prepaid Mastercard Credit Card / BPI Express Credit e-credit Card (in case I need to book a flight)
    • Reserve US$ bills (in case I can’t find an ATM)
  • Passport
  • Small clear envelope for documents
    • Flight tickets
    • Extra ID
    • Photocopy of passport and IDs
  • Samsung EX1 premium compact camera
  • Phone / portable music player

Borderline Obsessive Compulsive Bag Compartmentalization

Now here’s where it gets a big tricky. I like organizing my stuff :) I’ve found it easier to break my things down into smaller compartments because it saves a lot of time (and stress!) when I’m always packing / unpacking /  moving in different places all the time.

Here’s what the contents of my backpack look like.

Amazingly, all of those things can fit in that small CAT backpack and even a 1L bottled water. Since the top-loading bag only has one big compartment, things can get messy … really fast … all the time :(

I compartmentalize my stuff into one daypack and various packing cubes of different sizes. Here’s how I organize them:

Hawk Daypack

Yep, there’s a smaller backpack inside my backpack. I use this daypack together with a sling bag when I’m roaming around. I leave the bigger CAT backpack in my hostel, preferably in a locker if one is available. I’ve only recently started to bring a daypack after my back started to fire up against me for unhealthily carrying a bulky camera in my slingbag for hours on end in the past. Also useful when flying, because I use the daypack for my hand-carry items and my bigger backpack as check-in baggage.

My daypack stores:

  • Netbook. Samsung 10.1″ NF310
  • Chargers and a universal adapter
  • Camera and Lenses. Nikon D5000 DSLR, Sigma 18-250mm superzoom lens, Nikon 10-24mm ultra wide angle lens.
  • Accessories. Extra batteries, SD cards, remote shutter, lens filters (CPL and NDs), mini monopod
On the topic of cameras, I also bring a  tripod (Benro Transfunctional Travel Angel) that I attach externally on the side of the backpack.

Packing Cubes and Mesh Pouches

To organize my stuff, I bought a set of EagleCreek packing cubes available at TravelClub stores (or R.O.X). There’s an online retailer that sells cheaper packing cubes but their email/mobile number doesn’t appear to be working. I ended up buying EagleCreek. It was more expensive but the cubes served their purpose very well. The mesh pouches were from my purchases of TowelLite microfibre towels, though, any thing similar will do.

  • Large Packing Cube for:
    • 1 lightweight long sleeve jacket (sometimes I just bring a long sleeve cotton T-shirt if I know I’m not visiting really cold places)
    • 1 long lightweight pants (quick dry jogging pants work well).
    • 1 zip-off trekking pants (the one which you can “zip off” into shorts)
    • 2 walking shorts
    • 1 collared polo shirt (or a short sleeve buttoned-up shirt in case I’m feeling tired of my backpacker clothes)
  • Medium Packing Cube
    • 2 polyester (or similar quick dry) t-shirts
    • 1 polyester short sleeve shirt
    • 1 cotton t-shirt. I actually brought 3 cotton shirts on this trip, which I regret because they take too long to dry.
    • 2 polyester sleeveless sando/undershirt ( for sleeping and insanely hot days)
  • Small Packing Cube
    • 4 pairs of underwear
    • 1 ultralight running shorts (for unbearably sweaty hot hostels). I suppose boxer briefs will do but with the running shorts, I can also use outdoors :)
  • Small Mesh Pouch (sometimes attached outside my bag if contents are still wet)
    • Small microfibre towel. Tried traveling with a sarong to dry myself after showering … not enough for people with long hair :p
  • Small Mesh Pouch
  • Slippers / flip-flops (in plastic bag)
  • Toiletries pack (in clear plastic pouch)
    • Shampoo/conditioner (in soft tube). The soft tubes are actually emptied hair gel tubes. I found soft tubes sold online or in stores but they’re too expensive … P1,000 for a pack of 3s. A tube of hair gel in Watsons cost only less than P30!
    • Sunblock (in soft tube)
    • Deodorant (in small soft tube)
    • Travel toothbrush
    • Travel-sized toothpaste
    • Stacked cream containers for facial scrub and what not :p
  • Lately, I added another plastic pouch for
    • Underwater camera case
    • Swimming goggles
  • Lightweight shoes. Purchased ultra-lightweight barefoot trail shoes from Merrell.

Ultra-light Packing Nirvana

Camera and related accessories take up most space and weight on my backpack. While I can shave-off clothes and other stuff on my pack, I can’t seem to compromise with my camera.

I’m still making personal adjustments so that one day, I can achieve ultralight packing nirvana. I’m aiming for that day when I can travel effortlessly without being hindered by carrying a heavy load.