Packing tips & hacks: How to Workaway out of a backpack in Southeast Asia

At Workaway, we are working with a team of seasoned volunteers we call ‘Workaway Ambassadors’. They are the faces of our community and passionate about helping to build a group of globetrotters who want to see the world whilst giving back to the places they visit.

In our new ‘Workaway ambassadors’ blog series, they will share their volunteering stories, travel hacks, tips and more to inspire you. First up are travelling duo Danilo and Charlotte, who set for a long-term trip to Southeast Asia… carrying nothing but a backpack. Yes, really! Over to Danilo and Charlotte:

When my partner Danilo and I decided to embark on a 15-month-long Workaway adventure in Southeast Asia, the first concrete decision we made was to travel with nothing but our hand luggage.
Those who’d set out on the road before us had blogged enthusiastically about the pros: the swift transit from the gate to your destination and vice versa, the freedom that comes with the ability to pack up your entire life within minutes, wandering around in sweltering temperatures without too much hassle… Not to mention the money we would save on flights (which, 11 months into our trip, stands at £400 between us)!
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As I continued my research, I quickly began to realise that I didn’t know what to pack. Yes, we were exploring the same continent with few belongings, but I was going to spend most of my time as a Workaway volunteer doing… Well, I wasn’t really sure yet! However, what I was sure of was that this style of travel would require me to pack very differently. And I was right. Here are a few packing hacks that I’ve learnt so far from our trip in South East Asia:

It all starts with the bag(s)!

Do your research before investing in a bag! Your backpack should be comfortable to wear, well-designed, practical, and 100% waterproof. The last thing you need when you’re exploring, let’s say, the Cambodian countryside, is a soaking wet bag with a ripped strap that’s causing your back to ache.
The hand baggage allowance for most budget airlines in Southeast Asia totals around 7kg, but you are usually allowed one extra carry-on bag to sneak a little more luggage on board. Find a shoulder bag that is big enough to hold your daily essentials, yet small enough to fit into your backpack. Packing the heaviest and bulkiest items — camera, cables, computer and liquids — into this bag will make all the difference!

Tips to help you pack smart


  • Roll your clothes instead of folding them when packing to save space.
  • Swap your hairbrush for a small comb.
  • Pack a compact and foldable day bag.
  • Download eBooks — it’s amazing how you can fit an entire library in your tiny bag!
  • Bring a tablet instead of a laptop. If you do decide to bring your laptop, ensure that it’s small and lightweight. We brought our MacBook Air plus an external hard-drive with us.

Do not…

  • Take bottles of shower gel — bars of soap are smaller, cheaper and more longlasting!
  • Bring a mosquito net — it’s a waste of space as you’ll be provided with one most of the time.
  • Get a ready-assembled first-aid-kits — customise your own instead! Be sure to bring painkillers, plasters, Imodium, rehydration salts, disinfectant wipes and antiseptic cream. You’ll find plenty of pharmacies out here as well should you need them.
  • Take your make-up with you — it’s hot and sticky in Southeast Asia, so let your skin breathe! I personally only carry mascara and eyeliner.

What (not) to wear

For me, the hardest part of packing was deciding which clothes to bring, as they generally take up most of the space in a backpack. Also, what is the appropriate attire for harvesting garlic or teaching nuns in a monastery? I have found that packing for a Workaway adventure takes double the thought, especially as a woman.

Most women living in the more remote villages of Buddhist countries that we visited dress modestly, covering knees, chest and/or shoulders.
In Thailand, covering my shoulders was deemed more important than covering my legs, for example, whereas in Myanmar, both had to be concealed. In touristy areas locals won’t bat an eye, but in more rural places your cute mini shorts and sleeveless tops could easily offend. Southeast Asians are generally gentle and polite people: they won’t tell you that your outfit is offensive, but they might stare. As a visitor, you’ll have to pay attention to how everyone else is behaving and dressing. Be respectful and adjust your outfits accordingly!

To dress respectfully:

  • Bring a one-piece swimsuit. You’ll probably spend most of your time in more remote areas where girls often bathe fully clothed, so you may feel uncomfortable in a bikini. I saw women swimming in denim shorts in an indoor swimming pool in Cantho city, Vietnam!
  • Men may be expected to wear long trousers for some teaching jobs. Zip-off trouser shorts are ideal as they combine two outfits into one.
  • Pack a cardigan so that you can still rock your sleeveless tops without upsetting any locals. Plus, it’ll also keep you warm on the chillier nights and decent if you’re visiting temples.

To dress up:

  • Making a good impression is a big deal here. Make sure that at least one of your outfits passes as vaguely formal and, just to be safe, covers a good portion of your skin (this goes for both men and women!). As a Workawayer you’ll be lucky enough to be invited to various parties. We’ve been to weddings, birthday parties, village picnics, festivals, dance clubs, mecca parties and many more..
  • Dresses are great because you don’t need to worry about the rest of your outfit. Bring at least one that covers your knees, shoulders and cleavage.

To beat the heat and fight the cold: 

  • Leggings are great for colder nights, air-conditioned buses, hikes and covering up in conservative countries.
  • Bring more tops with sleeves (varying lengths) than without. You’re going to wear them more and they’re great for protecting against mosquitos.
  • A scarf can be used to cover your shoulders, protect your neck from the sun while hitching a ride in the back of a pickup truck, double as a light blanket at night or a sarong on the beach.
  • Don’t forget to pack at least one baggy cotton t-shirt for those occasions where you find yourself digging up a garden or mixing cement.
  • I carry one light fleece jacket for in case it gets cold.

To save space:

  • Only pack tops that combine well with the bottoms.
  • You won’t need more than 5 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of socks and two bras.
  • Your clothes should be versatile and double as pyjamas. You can wear thin cotton shorts during the day and to bed.
  • You’ll only need two pairs of shoes: flip-flops/sandals and trainers/walking shoes. Just remember that walking shoes are considerably heavier (and hotter!) than trainers. As a Workaway volunteer your shoes need to be as adaptable as your life is: One day, you can be asked to weed pineapples, whereas the next one you’ll be invited to attend a family wedding. (My trainers are fluorescent pink. In hindsight, I wish I’d picked something a little more subtle!)
  • Avoid bringing white clothes at all cost; they won’t stay that colour for very long!

Other items I wouldn’t Workaway without

    • Eye mask & ear plugs – Trust me, you’ll need them to sleep through roosters crowing at 4am, people playing loud Asian pop music blaring, and all the noises that come with staying in hostels.
    • Head torch – Sure, a regular torch would work fine too, but it’s nice to have both of your hands free!
    • Camera – Workawaying means seeing unexpected and incredible things everyday. Bear in mind that your camera, its bag and accessories all have to fit inside your backpack. Don’t forget to pack a spare battery and a cleaning kit to save your camera lens from the unavoidable dust and moisture!
    • Important documents – Make sure to carry both hard and soft copies of your passport, travel insurance, vaccination card, tefl certificate, contact lens prescription, etc.
    • Packing cubes – The key to keeping your luggage organised. Carry a variety of sizes and make sure everything has its fixed place.
    • Pegless washing line – We often have to wash our clothes by hand while travelling. This gadget takes up almost no space in your bag and can be tied up almost anywhere. You can also try making one yourself: all you need are 3 elastic strings and velcro!

    • Sleeping bag liner – If you can afford a silk sleeping bag liner, go for it, but we’ve found that a micro fibre liner works just as well to keep yourself warm.
    • Mooncup – A female traveller’s best friend! Sanitary pads and tampons take up a lot more space, and aren’t nearly as kind to my budget and the environment.
    • Epilator – I love that I can use this whenever and wherever I want, and apart from the initial purchase, it doesn’t cost me a penny. Don’t forget to check the voltage of your epilator matches the power sockets of countries you are planning to visit!
    • Travel speakers – A compact, portable speaker is sure to come in handy when you are volunteering, especially as a teacher.  You’ll find that, particularly in more rural areas where the schools have limited resources, this gadget can really help you captivate a whole class of tiny tots.
    • Anti-theft cable — We use these indestructible, lightweight cables to secure our bags to fixed objects to deter thieves. In Southeast Asia we don’t to need use the cables that often, but they take up little space and have proved their worth the few times we did use them.

    With realising just how little you need to enjoy the open road will come a great sense of freedom. Good luck with packing and have a great time on your volunteering adventure!

    Thanks very much to our Ambassadors Charlotte and Danilo for the useful packing hacks! Go over to Charlotte’s blog if you are interested in finding out more about their adventure in Southeast Asia. Do you have any tips on travelling light? Let us know in the comments below! 🙂

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    We are so glad to have an active community of travellers and hosts who’ve been inspired by their Workaway experiences and want to share with us! Be it a funny story, interesting insights or helpful ti... show more...

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