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What medication to take backpacking in South East Asia: Our essential medical kit packing list

Before embarking on our adventure across SE Asia, I spent a lot of time researching what types of medication to take backpacking. We were planning to travel through remote places with little access to civilisation, let alone western standards of healthcare so it was important to prepare a solid medical kit.

Deciding what medication to take backpacking

There is nothing worse than getting sick on the road and in certain situations its simply not possible to reach a pharmacy (think long heady boat trips or hot deserted islands). From our experience, it is always good practice to have a well-stocked medical kit to hand. So without further ado, here is our recommended packing list of medication to take backpacking!

Remote islands of Raja Ampat
When staying somewhere as remote as this, its not easy reaching the nearest Doctor or Pharmacy

Medication Checklist

Malaria Tablets
Malaria still exists in certain parts of SE Asia so check your destination before you travel. We took a two months supply to cover us during our initial stay in West Papua and the Philippines, and opted for Malarone which had minimal side effects. Discuss this with your GP first – It isn’t recommended to take Malaria tablets for an extended period of time.

As we only bought a two month supply, when we went back to Raja Ampat for the second time (unplanned) we weren’t taking any Malaria precautions. This was a bit risky, but we made up for it by covering ourselves in clothing and Deet at dusk and dawn to avoid bites as much as possible.

Ibuprofen & Paracetamol
Pain killers are an essential regardless of where you are in the world! We took a good supply with us but have had to re-stock on numerous occasions. It’s possible to buy Paracetamol off the shelf in supermarkets and 7-Elevens across SE Asia, but if you want Ibuprofen this is only available over the counter. The good news is, its inexpensive and tablets are normally 400mg each, helping maximise space and minimise packaging.

Cold & Flu Tablets
Much like painkillers, these are an essential item. After experiencing a few rainy days and sleeping in a damp bungalow in Raja Ampat, Nick got sick – which just goes to show that it is still possible to catch a cold in paradise! Colds have a tendency to make you feel really lousy, so we also recommend packing some Lemsip sachets and throat lozenges like Strepsils to ease symptoms.

Traditional Raja Ampat Bungalow
After a torrential downpour in Raja Ampat, sleeping in a damp palm leaf bungalow left Nick with a bad cold

Top tip – Even after a couple of months of travelling, certain supplies had diminished, so we always try to stock up on our must-have items (like painkillers) if we are ever near a pharmacy.

Antihistamine
With a high chance of insect bites and jellyfish stings while in the tropics, it is sensible to bring along some antihistamine tablets. I was bitten by a horrible horse fly once and it made me feel sick and a bit dizzy, so I quickly popped an antihistamine which did the trick.

Poisonous Tropical Spider West Papua
Exotic creatures in tropical places: Stay away from this guy, he looks lethal!

Immodium
For obvious reasons. You’ll likely be eating a lot of foreign food that your stomach may not be used to… The last thing you want is a bought of Bali belly ruining your trip!

Stomach Settler / Indigestion Relief Tablets
If you suffer from food poisoning or an upset stomach during your travels (which is highly likely) it is really worth packing a good supply of indigestion relief / stomach settling tablets to ease delicate bellies. We use Bisodol, which is very effective.

Motion Sickness Tablets
If you plan on travelling a lot by boat like we do, then motion sickness tablets may be advisable – especially on long ferry rides. Not all days are smooth sailing!

Manado to Bunaken Busy Public Ferry North Sulawesi
The public ferry to Bunaken Island: Not the most comfortable of conditions!

Water Retention Tablets
I personally suffer from excess bloat and puffiness after flying so I take water retention tablets like Aqua-Ban to help these symptoms when travelling. Aspirin is also a good alternative.

Oral Rehydration Tablets
ORT tablets are used to treat dehydration and replenish your body with salt and sugar. With temperatures well into the 30’s and a feeling of constant humidity it is very easy to get dehydrated in SE Asia. This can also be brought on through diarrhoea, therefore Oral Rehydration Tablets are a sensible addition to your medical kit

Multivitamins
It’s often difficult to maintain a consistently healthy diet while backpacking – especially if you travel on a budget like us. We try our best to keep things balanced, but in certain locations this can be challenging and we lack vitamins and minerals. It’s important to supplement this, especially whilst on the go. Multivitamins are generally cheaper at home, so stock up before you leave.

Ear Drops
For snorkellers and divers, ear infections are the most common ailment so if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in the water, be prepared. Infections are rife in places such as Raja Ampat where there is a lot of plankton in the water. As a preventative measure, we created our own homemade mix of alcohol and white vinegar and use this once a day after snorkelling or diving to help clean and dry out our ears.

Top tip – It is important to wash out your ears with clean water straight after snorkelling or diving and if you are travelling by boat, cover them from the wind with a towel.

Claire night dive in Tulamben Bali
For outer ear infections we use antibiotic drops called Otopain which are widely available at pharmacies throughout Indonesia

Eye Drops
Nick and I have had laser eye surgery which makes us prone to dry eye. So artificial tears are a must-have medication to take backpacking. Symptoms are generally worsened whilst flying and when spending a lot of time in air conditioning.

Skincare Checklist

Antibacterial cream
This is a med kit essential! Antibacterial cream is a multi-purpose item which can be used on a variety of ailments including cuts, bites, burns, coral stings, rashes and minor skin irritations. In hot, humid and often damp climates skin takes a lot longer to heal and is also prone to fungal infections, so make sure to apply cream ASAP.

Afterbite
Even after 12 months of travelling, we still hate mosquitos. But since they’ve become part of daily life we’ve learnt how to deal with / put up with them! By far the best solution is Afterbite, which includes ammonia. If this is applied directly to a fresh bite, the itchy side effects and swelling are minimised significantly. Afterbite is also great for other insect bites and stings, so if you’re planning on trekking though the jungle this will be a firm favourite in your kit.

Alcohol/Antiseptic Wipes
Alcohol and antiseptic wipes are a necessary addition to your backpacking medical kit, especially if you sustain injuries while on the go. These clean the wound, killing off any bacteria.

Cuscus in tree West Papua Marsupial
Nick got scratched by a Cuscus in West Papua so we made sure to clean the wound with alcohol wipes straight away!

Tiger balm
We are a little bit obsessed with Tiger Balm with its primary use on our mosquito bites – the cooling sensation helps to ease itchiness. It’s also great for clearing nasal congestion, rubbing onto the temples to soothe headaches and muscular pain.

Top tip – If we’re staying somewhere a little on the stinky side (occasionally the bedding and pillows at homestays in Raja Ampat were a bit smelly) I rub Tiger Balm under my nose for soothing aromas to help me sleep!

First Aid Kit Checklist

Plasters
I like to keep a little stash of plasters in our day-bag in case of any accidents, and generally opt for waterproof or the super strong old-school fabric type. It’s really easy to sustain minor foot injuries like a stubbed toe or blisters during a hike.

Waterfall jungle trekking Bali
Jungle trekking: Barefoot in Bali

Crepe Bandages & Gauze
We have crepe bandages and gauze in our main first aid kit, for any larger ailments and unforeseen emergencies.

Safety Pins
In case we need to use the bandages, we packed half a dozen safety pins. These also come in handy for other things such as temporarily mending holes in backpacks etc.

Surgical Tape
Surgical tape is strong and water tight so if you have an injury that needs sealing this will do the job!

Small Scissors
A pair of small scissors are a backpacking must-have. Of course they are meant for cutting plaster strips and bandages but you’ll be surprised how useful they are. We tend to use ours on more of a day to day basis – especially for opening packs of powdered coffee and instant noodle sachets!!

Pop Mie noodles packaging
Pure concentration: Opening sachets of noodle flavouring is fiddly business without scissors!

Mini Sewing Kit
Our clothes have sustained some significant wear and tear on this trip, therefore I highly recommend a mini sewing kit to our fellow travellers for mending clothing and bags while on the road.

Is this enough medication to take backpacking?

In truth we probably packed over-cautiously, because in most cases it is not difficult to pick up medical supplies in South East Asia. For example in Thailand you will always find a chemist in large Tesco Lotus stores and in Indonesia there are local ‘Apoteks’ in the most surprising of places!

Pharmacists generally speak English, so don’t be shy – its never been a problem for us to communicate our needs.

If you’re transiting through a town or city to reach somewhere more remote, its worth picking up any last minute supplies – even if you think you might not need them. Whilst we were in Raja Ampat I had to travel a long distance by boat to the Port of Waisai to grab medication for Nick. I really didn’t know what to expect, but thankfully found a very affordable and well-stocked pharmacy.

However, this is not always the case. So in our opinion, its always better to be safe than sorry!

We hope you found our list of medication to take backpacking useful! If you like our packing lists and want to read more blog posts like this one then please check out our Travel Guides. Have any questions? Give us a shout in the comments below!

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