Upon landing in Thailand, you’ll likely be greeted by warm, sunny weather and a serious blast of humidity.
That jumper you wore on the plane will have you sweating like crazy in minutes.
But, before you tear of your clothes and go bare-chested, or put on a bikini to parade around in, bear in mind that Thai culture is generally quite modest and conservative.
With this in mind, you will need to plan your packing so that you can remain cool but casual, and conservative when necessary – such as when visiting cultural sites and temples.
You’ll also want to know what’s appropriate on the beach and in the local town, what clothes are best to wear when shopping on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and what clobber to wear in the evening when you’re up for a party.
From the street to the beach to the club, this guide contains everything you need to know.
Traditional dress in Thailand is modest, characterized by fitted clothes that cover the legs and arms.
Even though the climate is hot, you may be shocked to see Thais wearing long pants/trousers and long sleeves. Often just looking at locals makes you feel hot.
One reason for this is to cover up their skin from the sun, but another is that Thai culture values modesty, along with respect and courtesy too.
Many Thais, particularly women, feel more comfortable in modest clothing.
This is certainly the case at local temples, and when visiting local government offices/buildings and places considered to be of a “high level”.
It is often quite easy to spot unsuspecting tourists wearing short shorts or sleeveless shirts at local temples, which will draw a few frowns from the locals.
Aim to be a traveller who’s in touch with the local customs by treating places of worship and authority with respect.
Of course, this is a holiday, so naturally you’ll be packing your shorts, vests and flip flops, but you should also bring some full length trousers and a shirt or two along: one with short and one with long sleeves.
For those staying at 4/5 star hotels, you probably don’t want to be wearing a vest down to dinner in the evening, so you may need some casual garments.
For men: throw in a couple of polo shirts, button-down collared shirts, and full length cotton/linen trousers. You’ll certainly need these if visiting the Grand Palace and other temples.
Women should bring along loose pants and tops that cover the shoulders. Summer dresses are great as they are versatile and can be worn in many situations, keeping you cool and looking modest.
For public places, you might choose to avoid spaghetti strap tops, especially without a bra underneath – this is a classic tourist error.
That said, you can always drape a shawl or sweater over the shoulders when need be.
All tops should have modest necklines; cleavage is definitely considered immodest to have on show – particularly on public transport.
Even though you will most likely see plenty of cleavage on show from young Thai women, particularly in Bangkok, you don’t get a pass because you are the foreigner
That’s the way it goes.
Materials for Keeping Cool
If possible, wear clothes made from a moisture-wicking fabric; it will help immensely with the heat and humidity.
If you can’t find quick-dry, buy clothes that are synthetic-polyester blends.
Though they don’t sound appealing, they’ll be much lighter and airier than cotton, which gets soggy from sweat.
Careful with long pants and jeans. While an acceptable form of leg wear, they can also be stifling if you’re not used to the heat. The last thing you want is a sweaty crutch and wet patches showing on your bottom.
Choose light, airy garments. Thailand gets super humid.
Keep a light top or shawl handy, though. The air-con in malls, shops and hotels can be really cold, and coming in from one temperature extreme to another can make you feel feverish.
Before you depart on your Thai adventure, don’t forget to consider your footwear!
You should opt for comfort first and style second; after all, you may be doing a lot of walking if you’re based in a city.
Of course you will be bringing flip flops for the beach, but rubber material slip on shoes are the perfect option.
Keep in mind that if it rains it can get slippery, and the water can come up past your ankles in some places. So don’t waste space packing too many heels or shoes that can’t be worn in a range of weather situations.
When it rains, it can rain hard. You don’t want to be wearing socks and non-waterproof shoes!
That said, try to avoid shoes that insulate your feet (like hiking boots).
For trekking, this is hard to avoid, but it’s darn hot and you’ll get pretty uncomfortable quite quickly.
Not to mention that such shoes require socks, which you generally won’t be wearing, I’m sure. Socks get very smelly in Thailand!
Note that you will be removing your shoes frequently, as it is custom to enter both Thai homes, some shops, your hotel room, and temples barefooted. So you’ll want to pack easy slip-on-slip-off shoes.
While taking off your shoes is customary when entering someone’s home or some shops, do not walk around without shoes on in the street.
This is a common mistake tourists make, particularly on the islands.
Naturally will be feeing free and want to let go of your cultural norms, but Thai culture has specific rules pertaining to feet. Walking around the city and then entering a temple, home or shop is considered quite dirty and potentially offensive.
Certainly don’t sit down and put your feet up so that they are pointing at people waking past or sitting opposite. Soles of the feet should remain on the floor.
Clothes for City Shopping
Adhere to the general rules of modesty when shopping in the city. Wear clean, non-revealing clothes.
Casual-cool, is a good way to describe a positive dress code.
Again, just because you see a Thai person doing it, doesn’t mean you should do it too.
You may see a woman wearing a really short skirt and high heels, or a man with hit short rolled up past his belly to give his stomach some air, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for you to do the same.
Ladies, wear a bra, or a sports bra if that’s more comfortable in the heat. No nipple exposure please!
Men, no Euro-style shorts with your package on show. And put a top on. We don’t care if you have a six-pack or not!
Dress-Code at the Beach
Everyone travels to Thailand’s southern shores to splash in the Kingdom’s crystal blue waters. This, of course, necessitates a bathing suit.
When you do go to the beach, you’ll notice that most Thais are fully clothed on both sand and in the sea.
This is quite typical; largely because they are covering up from the sun and don’t want to get any browner.
You will notice that Thais tend to go to the beach after 4pm when the sun is much weaker. They think we are crazy for doing otherwise!
So, what to wear in Thailand on the beach…
Two-piece swimsuits are fine on the beach, but have a sarong to cover up as you leave and walkawayfrom the beach.
Male travelers will find that wearing swimming trunks is acceptable, and it is generally acceptable for female travelers to wear a two-piece bathing suit.
Women should try to wear suits that are not overly revealing, especially in areas of Thailand that are adjacent to Malaysia: there’s a large and conservative Muslim population here.
Thongs are generally a no-no and may attract a lot of the wrong attention.
The beach is pretty relaxed though, and no one is going to tell you off for a revealing costume.
Don’t go nude, though. Topless bathing is unacceptable.
What you really need to be aware of at the seaside is the etiquette when walking away from the beach.
Always have a cover-up handy, and never walk through a neighboring beach town without proper shoes and a sarong or t-shirt on.
The same rules apply for riding motorbikes. Visitors should never hop atop a scooter in their bathing suits or without shoes.
That said, many guys wear swimming shorts instead of trunks, which are of course fine for riding a scooter.
Either way, good etiquette is to put shorts and a t-shirt/vest on when riding/walking around. It’s also much safer if you happen to topple off your bike.
Visiting Temples & Historical Sites
If you’re visiting a temple, opt for loose fitting, breathable clothes.
Women should always bring a sarong or scarf to tie around their waist just in case.
Some temples are stricter than others, and you may not be allowed to enter without the proper garb.
The general rule is that the shoulders and knees should be covered; a practice that applies to both men and women.
Men should try to wear a collared shirt (a polo will do) and pants (trousers), if they can stand the heat.
Women should opt for knee-length shorts, a skirt to the knee or beyond, or a dress.
A shawl is a helpful and versatile piece of clothing in this scenario because it can cover the shoulders easily and is light enough to wear even in the most blazing heat.
If you’re visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok, be prepared for a very strict dress code.
Women should come with a shawl or two to drape as necessary. Leggings are often frowned upon, so try to wear flowing pants or a long skirt if you can manage.
Be sure your chest, shoulders and arms are completely covered.
Men should take care to completely button their long sleeve shirts and wear trousers. Cotton or linen full length trousers work nicely, as does a long sleeve cotton/linen top, with or without buttons.
Clothes for Trekking
If you’re planning a jungle adventure, you’ll need to pack accordingly.
Be sure to bring good hiking or trekking shoes/boots that have a deep tread. The Thai jungle is often wet from rain, and you don’t want to slip.
Be sure that your boots are easy-dry. Pack long socks that can cover ankles and shin skin.
Keep in mind that hiking sandals and flip flops are a bad idea, since they allow easy access for hungry mosquitoes and leeches.
They also quite dangerous because there are many hazards upon which you can hurt your feet.
Though it’ll likely be warm, your best bet is to hike in sports leggings, long pants or light sweatpants.
It’s also wise to bring along a poncho or a raincoat in case of a sudden downpour, and always bring mosquito and bug repellent along on a jungle adventure.
Clothes for the Bar & Disco
If all you’re after is a cold beer at the end of a hot day, you can relax because most casual bars in Thailand don’t have a dress code.
Of course, a fancy hotel will have a dress code, and “hi-so” bars and clubs in areas of Bangkok like Thong Lor will do too.
Regardless, you’ll want to make sure that you’re seen in a good light and being respectful.
Choose tops with sleeves and bottoms that extend to the knees.
Wear shoes, and make sure you’re clean and well attired, even after a long day of exploring in the sun!
As mentioned, if you’re looking to party at a nice restaurant or a rooftop bar, you’ll need to elevate your look a bit.
If the venue is a fancy one in the city, you can bet that there will be a dress code.
Men should shy away from wearing vests, shorts, or flip flops.
Both men and women should eschew athletic wear for the night and choose footwear other than sneakers.
Casual hats will likely not be allowed, and men are cautioned against wearing sandals or open-toed shoes.
General Footwear Tips
While they may not be the most fashion forward, Crocs are a lifesaver in Thailand.
Lightweight, comfortable, waterproof and bacteria free, they’re pretty much the optimal shoe for a climate like Thailand’s.
And don’t worry, not every style the company offers is like their original ‘holey’ clog.
Men can choose from a streamlined loafer style and women can even pick up Croc-brand ballet flats!
You don’t have to pay the expensive price for the original Croc brand either. There are a number of Croc-like shoes available in markets all across Thailand that will do the job.
Try to avoid any shoe that will make your foot sweat and smell.
The thing is, you won’t want to wear socks because it’s very hot, but when you wear trainers or shoes, or any footwear that has a thick lining, without socks, the shoes will start to smell very quickly because of the bacteria that builds up due to excess heat.
Remember: you’ll likely be walking around a lot, so wear comfortable and breathable footwear.
Steer clear of combat boots and buy more stylish hiking sandals. Avoid canvas tennis shoes and opt for supportive and waterproof clogs.
Your feet will definitely thank you!
10 Essentials for Your Packing List
1. A good pair of breathable walking shoes that you can slip on and off
2. A versatile and non-wrinkly shawl
3. Loose, breathable pants (linen is a great option)
4. Sunglasses and a sun hat
5. Men: A polo top or collared shirt
6. Women: A beach coverup or sarong
8. Quick dry t-shirts for very hot days
9. A poncho or a raincoat: you can also buy cheap ones in Thailand from 7-Eleven
10. Mosquito repellant
10 Tips You’ll thank Me For
1. Remember that you are a visitor in a country that isn’t your own: you should act politely and respectfully. Sometimes that means dressing the part, even if you see others doing the opposite. Set the example, don’t follow the crowd.
2. Avoid immodest outfits in cities and rural towns
3. Always bring sufficient covering when visiting sacred and holy sites.
4. Beware of mosquitoes: They are especially active at night, so take care and use spray on bare arms and legs.
5. Shower regularly: the Kingdom is hot and humid and you’ll likely get sweaty and stinky after a few hours of exploration. Thai culture appreciates cleanliness and good hygiene.
6. In addition to frequent showers, use anti-perspirant. Being a “smelly foreigner” is not a good look.
7. Prepare for the sun: the sun in Thailand may be much stronger than what you’re used to, so bring along a hat, sunblock and shades to keep cool.
8. Avoid moisturizer! It can block your pores and make your skin sweat even more.
9. Opt for light makeup that won’t sweat, drip and stain your clothes.
10. Do laundry frequently: There are many self service laundromats in Thailand, but you can also get it done cheaply and reliably through your guesthouse or hotel. Take advantage of these services and wash your clothes often – or they will smell!
Photo credit Paul Eddie Yates