How to Dress Like a Backpacker in 5 Easy Steps

South East Asia has a unique backpacker fashion culture. The clothing chosen by travellers is fun and funky; you could even call it fancy dress! Don’t take your travel wardrobe too seriously here – just let go and enjoy participating in this unique fashion catwalk.

South East Asia has its own rules and influences distinct ‘fashion’ trends amongst travellers throughout the region. It doesn’t follow the trends imposed by the fashion industry, it makes its own. Some can even say that the styles created here have influenced major trends around the world.

What past and present fashion trends will you encounter when you backpack South East Asia? Let’s fill you in on these quirky ‘Backpacker Fashion Style Must Haves’.


Dress Like a Backpacker in 5 Easy Steps

1. Neon Colours

A major fashion trend around the globe just a few years ago, Thailand has been at the forefront of the neon look for ages. Every full moon, backpackers wear traditional neon attire consisting of head to toe iridescent clothing. From swimsuits to headbands and full-on body paint, the beautiful island of Koh Phangan glows as brightly as the moon during this monthly gathering.

Since the Full Moon Party is a rite of passage on every backpacker itinerary, the neon swimming trunks and Koh Phangan vests spread their neon love from Thailand around to Vietnam and down to Indonesia.

Full Moon Party Vests being sold pre-party in Haad Rin
Neon Full Moon Party Vests being sold pre-party in Haad Rin.

2. Harem Balloon Pants

It would appear that backpackers pick up a pair of harem pants upon arrival in Bangkok – the bigger and more voluminous, the better! Oh yes, MC Hammer continues to thrive in this part of the world… So many backpackers sport these kecks that some island locals have even started to wear this style too. The fashion industry was again late to adopt this look when harem pants hit retail stores worldwide in 2010. It seems like the South East Asia style is always ahead of the trends.

A girl wearing Harem Pants in Changi Airport, Singapore.
Harem pants are the most popular pants for backpackers! Photo by Kerrie Alexandra Fretwell.

3. Friendship Bracelets

When it comes to accessories, Laos is king. This trend began back in the days when tubing was a world-famous extravaganza. (If you’re too young to know what we’re talking about read this.) Backpackers wore colourful string bracelets to commemorate how many days they had ‘survived’ Vang Vieng. Each day a backpacker went ‘tubing’ they were given a different colour string tied around their wrist.

A symbol of perseverance and strength, some backpackers just couldn’t get enough of the look and continue to collect colourful bracelets throughout their trip as they hopped from country to country. Forget the eighties; friendship bracelets will never lose their cool with Southeast Asia’s backpackers!

Shopping for bracelets at the market in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Shopping for bracelets at the market in Luang Prabang, Laos.

4. Mix and Match Flip Flops

Havaianas made mismatched flip-flops cool in recent years but backpackers in Asia have long been donning this typical “morning after” beach party look. It’s a known fact that if you start the night in your favourite pair of sandals, you’re probably going to end up barefoot or with flip flops that don’t match and are two sizes too small.

It’s not rare to see backpackers with this trendy mismatched flip flop look after some time on the islands. Someone should give Havaianas a call and let them know they need to start selling single flip-flops. What are you in need of – a flip or a flop?

Flip flops stuck in the sand on a beach.
A matching pair of flip flops is so last year…

5. Beer Logo Shirts

The drinking and party scene in South East Asia is some of the best in the world and backpackers want to make sure everyone knows it. Unlike at home where you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a Carling or Budweiser shirt, local brew tees are a must-have for any backpacker looking to keep up with the fashion on Kuta Beach or Khoa San Road.

Flaunting singlets featuring favourite beer brands has been one of the biggest backpacker fashion trends in the region as far as time can tell. An eyesore to some, a sign of backpacking pride to others, beer logo tees continue to be a big hit amongst South East Asia travellers. While the fashion industry hasn’t caught up to this trend just yet, it won’t be long before you see Chang and Laos Beer threads strutting their stuff down the catwalk and into your favourite high street shop!

A Backpacker in a Chang Vest Pets an Elephant
A backpacker in a Chang best.

Just as with this article, don’t take your travel clothing too seriously in South East Asia. Go with the flow and wear carefree and youthful clothes to match the chilled out vibe in this awesome backpacker kingdom! 

About the Author: Originally from Los Angeles, Alexandra Jimenez has been travelling around the world since 2008. 36 countries and six continents later, she’s travelled as a tourist, a backpacker, and a vagabond. Learn how to travel stylishly and practically on her website Travel Fashion Girl and find out more about her travels on Wanderlust and the Girl. Photos by Guy Sela.

1 thought on “How to Dress Like a Backpacker in 5 Easy Steps”

  1. Barry J Campbell

    Haha! More like ‘whats cheap in the SE Asian market stalls this year?”..not knocking it, loving it! 🙂

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