Let me first say that I wear Thai fisherman’s pants on a daily basis. I always have a nice sheen going because I’m always sweating to some degree, I never try and fix my hair because I’m just going to put a helmet over it anyway, my clothes now often have white dog hair clinging to them (especially because I wear a lot of black) and my light skin/blue eyes/blonde hair combo make it more than obvious that I’m not from here.
When I moved to Thailand, I immediately started working in Thai schools and was always extra aware of what I was wearing both at my job and outside of work. Appearance here means a lot. Sometimes it’s hard to tell just quite the rules are – I haven’t figured out why girls won’t wear tank tops, but they’ll wear the shortest shorts ever – but here people’s appearances say a lot about who they are and, for better or for worse, really affect how others see you.
While I have been known to rock the baggy harem pants and flip flops, over the years I’ve found different clothes and styles that work in the humid heat while still appearing a little bit more respectable and not sticking out like a blatant tourist. I also have started sticking to the same color palette, mainly white, grey, denim blue, army green, light pink and black, so everything goes together. I don’t think too much about what I wear in the morning and almost all my clothes travel well too. Essentially, I’ve been working the “capsule” wardrobe for a while now without even trying, simply because it makes sense – I don’t like spending money on clothing, and it’s easier to pack and travel, or move halfway around the world for a few months, with less stuff.
If you’re just passing through Thailand on a short holiday, then really – except for in temples – you can wear pretty much whatever you want. However, if you’re sticking around for longer or starting to work here you can’t be relying on the backpacker basics.
Here are my go to’s for what to wear in Thailand:
95% of my clothes can be mixed and matched together and I can wear them here in Thailand, or back in Seattle, or even Europe (though I would need a better coat for winter).
I’ve also found several items of clothing that I wear almost daily and quickly replace when they wear out along with several Do’s and Don’ts that I stick to.
Use lacy and sheer fabrics to your advantage! The dress above, thanks to Zalora, is a great example of staying relatively covered up but not too hot…it has sleeves and a high collar, but not really since it’s lacy. I also have several shirts and blouses in sheer fabrics, but not too sheer, that I can wear over camisoles but still be covered. Mesh and lace underwear is also the way to go and quickly dries when you’re doing your own laundry.
Always have a chambray – I have a slightly-too-big-for me chambray button up shirt that I quickly throw on when I go out on my motorbike. It goes with just about everything else in my closet, thanks to my tendency to stick to a few neutral colors, and is a great cover up when driving. Driving around in a tank top is a sure tourist giveaway and covering up will protect you from the sun while actually keeping cooler.
Sweat-wicking yoga pants – I wear a pair of black, cropped sweat-wicking yoga pants about every other day. Lots of women wear leggings here, so they fit in well plus are comfortable and don’t show that, sometimes, you’re literally sweating your ass off. Tight pants and a loose shirt is a great combination.
Ankle-length pants – It may be all in my head, but I’m more cool and comfortable if I’m wearing cropped ankle-length skinnies rather than full length pants. (I do wear denim sometimes but wouldn’t recommend bringing jeans if you’re just traveling through!)
Tone down the harem pants – Harem or “Aladdin” pants are great – they cover up your knees, which is important when visiting temples, yet are plenty cool and comfortable. I like wearing loose pants especially on flights or overnight bus rides because they always seem to be super air-conditioned but I still want to be able to move around easily. However the harem pants you can buy in Thailand tend to be really loud and really loose. Fortunately, these types of pants are in style other places too now though and are more tailored while not quite as intense as some of the bright, baggy elephant print pants you can buy at the night markets.
Bring clothes from home – Yes, you can find almost anything here and there are a lot of cheap options, but many things don’t fit properly or wear out quickly. Most of my clothes, and all of my shoes, are from the U.S.
Invest in solid sandals – I don’t usually wear flip flops because I don’t like to drive in them. Instead I have several pairs of strappy sandals that I know will stay on feet and also look a little nicer than rubber flip flops. Before I came back to Thailand this time around I bought a pair of the Teva Cabrillo Wedge Sandals because they are supportive with good traction, yet light and don’t look like Tevas – you can easily wear them with a dress!
Sharp-looking flats – I travel with one pair of nice flats that are black patent leather and a pair of worn-out, faded Toms. The black ones work with pants, shorts or dresses and can be dressed up or down depending on what I’m wearing; the Toms are for everyday wear and tear. Both protect my feet a bit more and both are easy to slip on and off when going into temples or someone’s home.
Remember that baby powder and dry shampoo are your friend – Between the heat and wearing a helmet for part of the day, I go through a lot of baby powder and dry shampoo (to try) to stay looking fresh.
Go shoeless – Yes, you’ll be asked to take your shoes off when entering a temple, massage shop, yoga studio, and even some small stores and guesthouses, but walking around outside or, worse, driving a motorbike without wearing any shoes is just plain stupid. I get that you’re a world-traipsing, free spirit who doesn’t have the time or material needs to be bothered with something like shoes, but in a country where shoes are often worn until they fall apart and the foot is considered the dirtiest part of the body, not wearing shoes when you’re expected to just seems plain bizarre and rude. Plus, if you’re walking or driving along the street with nothing to protect your feet, you’re practically begging to get a cut or infection.
Go topless – There are several parts to this rule including: Don’t go topless on the beaches or at a pool. It is in no way okay. You’ll see Thais going into the water in shorts and T-shirts, they’ll tolerate bikinis in touristy areas, but being topless is highly rude and inappropriate. Also don’t wear shirts, like those super loose or sheer tank tops, where you can see your bra. No one wants to see that, especially not here. As a foreigner you’re not expected to completely cover up as much as most of the Thais do, but it makes people uncomfortable if you cross the line with what you’re showing off. (And, guys, unless you’re on the beach, keep your shirt on! You look ridiculous walking down the street or thinking you’re cool riding your automatic scooter without it.)
Wear shorts with your butt cheeks sticking out – I can’t believe I even have to write this, but I regularly see girls walking around Chiang Mai with shorts so short that their ass is hanging out. I don’t see how that’d be appropriate anywhere, but it certainly isn’t here.
Always wear Chang, Singha, Same Same, or elephant t-shirts and tanks tops – Yes, it’s nice that you can grab a cheap shirt at the markets, but they kind of look silly when you always see people wearing the exact same ones.
Wear shorts, tank tops or low cut shorts when you’re doing something important – If you’re volunteering, meeting someone about a job, going to Thai lessons or something else where you’re interacting with people on a less touristy level try to look a little more put together.
It may sound like there are a lot of rules for how to dress, but there aren’t really. It’s just that many Westerners equate being in a hot place with showing off as much skin as possible and, if you want to try and respect the people and culture here more or are spending a significant amount of time in the country, it just doesn’t fly here.
What other recommendations would you add to my list? What do you usually wear in Thailand?
If you’re planning on moving over to Thailand, you may want to check out my past post about what to pack when you’re moving to Southeast Asia.
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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