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Southeast Asia forum

Appropriate Clothing For Women in Southeast Asia

Posted by backpackgirl on 11/7/2008 at 23:36

Hi everyone.

My boyfriend and I are backpacking Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia between Dec. 27 ’08 and April 29 ’09. We are getting very excited and are trying to plan ahead … and pack light. I have looked over the “What to Pack” info on this site already, but am a little concerned about what type of clothing is appropriate for women. I hope you can help!

What type of swimming costume would be suggested? Would a bikini top with board shorts be ok?

Are tank tops and halter-top all right, or is it best to be more covered ie: short sleeve, ¾ length and long sleeve?

When entering temples (and in general), would a dress with thick straps be all right or would a skirt and collared, bottom down t-shirt be better?

For dresses, skirts and shorts, is it best to have them come to the knee or is mid-thigh acceptable?

Finally, how concerned should we be with taking warmer clothing? I understand it does get cool in Laos and we are planning to explore Sapa and surrounding area. Is a light hoodie enough or should we consider bring a heavier hoodie or zip up fleece? As for pants, are jeans a good idea or would a cotton blend be better?

Thank you so much in advance. I truly appreciate this site and all who take the time to help others.
Carly
Canada

#1 backpackgirl has been a member since 4/6/2008. Posts: 1

Posted by somtam2000 on 12/7/2008 at 06:52 admin

Hi Carly,

Glad you like the site!

What type of swimming costume would be suggested? Would a bikini top with board shorts be ok?

Yes that would be fine.

Are tank tops and halter-top all right, or is it best to be more covered ie: short sleeve, ¾ length and long sleeve?

Either is acceptable.

When entering temples (and in general), would a dress with thick straps be all right or would a skirt and collared, bottom down t-shirt be better?

Generally you're best to have your shoulders covered (eg a t-shirt, or button down shirt) is better than straps... That said there's no shortage of Thais in very skimpy cloths wandering through temples, so it's a bit of a personal choice regarding how conservative you want to be. We'd say your best erring on the conservative side.

For dresses, skirts and shorts, is it best to have them come to the knee or is mid-thigh acceptable?

Mid-thigh is fine.

Finally, how concerned should we be with taking warmer clothing? I understand it does get cool in Laos and we are planning to explore Sapa and surrounding area. Is a light hoodie enough or should we consider bring a heavier hoodie or zip up fleece? As for pants, are jeans a good idea or would a cotton blend be better?

Luang Prabang and northern Vietnam, especially Sapa, get very cool to downright cold in Dec/Jan. I'd lean towards a pair of jeans and a fleece, but bear in mind you'll only need them for that segment of your trip, so if you're only there for a few days, perhaps buy something cheap and warm there and leave it there when you're done.

More questions - ask away!

#2 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,498
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Posted by quokka on 13/7/2008 at 13:14

Somtam, I'm a bit surprised by your answer. While a minority of younger Thai women will dress like that, and a lesser number of middle-aged to older women, I've seen very very few of them dressed like that when visiting a temple. In fact the women that will dress like that anywhere are overwhelmingly tourists (including tourists from some other Asian countries).

We have overheard Thai people comment unfavorably about individuals showing too much skin, and of course there is the occasional print in the paper from those disturbed by it. In discussing the issue with some Thai we were told that a fair number of young people are less concerned with it, but for the over-35 set, it does make a difference.

I don't doubt what you have witnessed, but as you said, it is best to err on the conservative side.

Carly, I'd recommend light, loose clothing which does cover your shoulders, thighs, and most parts in-between. That applies to your boyfriend as well. You really can't go wrong that way.

#3 quokka has been a member since 12/11/2004. Posts: 2

Posted by Lother on 13/7/2008 at 13:49

Especially as the trip also covers Laos & Cambodia, I'd agree with the advice of erring on the conservative side. I've never really understood the need to wear particularly skimpy clothing when travelling, as loose and covering clothes are cooler in any case. Then again, I'm male and can always wear simple trousers and collared shirts when I travel anywhere, so maybe I just don't get it.

Going to a club in PP or Bangkok or staying at a tourist-oriented beach destination is one thing, but especially when travelling in the countryside, you'll definitely ensure a more positive and respectful response from the locals if you cover your shoulders and thighs.

#4 Lother has been a member since 12/5/2006. Location: Earth. Posts: 214

Posted by sof3103 on 19/7/2008 at 22:18

Having lived and worked in Thailand and travelled through Cambodia, I am also surprised by SomTam2000's answer.

I agree with quokka's and lother's recommendations for the both of you.

Have fun!

#5 sof3103 has been a member since 5/6/2008. Posts: 1

Posted by MADMAC on 13/6/2009 at 23:55

I agree with Somtam on this one. Thai women in the 20-30 set do not dress conservatively unless they go to a Temple or an official function. In that case, I recommend a full length skirt and a shirt that covers your shoulders and mid-rif.

I live in provincial Thailand and EVERY DAY I see a lot of women wearing very short, shorts, bare midriff... this ain't Saudi Arabia. In principal I have found Thai dress to be no more conservative than European. Would you go to a Church wearing cut-offs and a halter top? No. Same here. Thailand has changed a lot over the last 40 years, and so has the culture. The big no-nos are largely not big no-nos anymore. Some still are (don't kick people for example), and Thais remain funny about stepping over them or their food, but in general, and certainly with dress, the place isn't that conservative anymore.

Just apply common sense and you're good to go.

#6 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by exacto on 14/6/2009 at 01:35

I have to agree with Somtam's and MADMAC's comments on this one too, at least for Thailand. In my experience, and from comments from my Thai friends, Thais don't necessarily expect you to follow their culture rules anyway.

I've overhead the comments quokka mentions as well, but people make the same kinds of comments here in conservative southern Utah. They aren't necessarily representative of the culture as a whole.

But as Lother points out, Cambodia and Laos are much more conservative in how people dress, so you'll want to have at least a few of the more lightweight, covered-up style outfits others recommend.

I owe you a beer for this one MADMAC! Can we get Beer Lao in Mukdahan? LMAO...

#7 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,626
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Posted by BruceMoon on 14/6/2009 at 10:11

Madmac & exacto

It's odd, I know, but I've found that what a SE Asian wears is not the criteria. Rather, that SE Asians have expectations of what westerners should wear and appear flattered when westerners don't wear the summery beach gear stuff.

My wife & I are retired. I long ago learnt that while we could go in shorts, etc., we earned respect if I wore long pants, and my wife wore a mid-shin length skirt and a blouse that went past the armpits.

And, we also learnt that when we dress like that people give us more of their time, are prepared to give us leeway in discussions over money, etc.

Of course, it may be an age related situation, but if that were to be the case then I assume we'd not get the extra's from the aged. That we do suggests that our effort to present discretely IS[/i appreciated.

As an aside, often, our clothes can be wrinkled & travel tired. But I suggest its the 'covering' that earns the respect and extra's.

Cheers

#8 BruceMoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941

Posted by MADMAC on 14/6/2009 at 14:14

Exacto
Indeed you can. I have actually developed a taste for beer Lao and drink it on occassion (although I am currently on an alcohol hiatus as I was drinking too much in the hot weather and don't want to become an alcoholic like my grandfather was).

Bruce
The one style of dress that I have heard both Thais and one Laos woman comment on is the tank top and shorts with birkenstocks or open foot wear. The beer gut to go with it doesn't help. This look is essentially slovenly (You can probably see I disapprove as well). Be clean, shower often, wear clean clothes... the grunge look isn't going to cut it here. You will see Thais walking around with some elements of this look - they are almost universally poor and treated like dirt.

I would suggest that the issue is less one of "covering up" than looking neat and clean.

A rule of thumb here is also that dressing well reflects your wealth, and wealth determines your social status. It's hard for Thais, because we just don't fit into their system, but if you dress like a bum, or otherwise present yourself as a "rejectionist" with dreadlocks and fishermens pants - well, you will be viewed as of lower social status. Although people here tend towards the polite and likely won't say a thing.

Lastly, as Bruce alluded to, age is a factor. The 20 something set does not dress conservatively in Thailand except when occassion calls for it. The 40 something set does dress conservatively. If you are older there is certainly more expectation that you look the part.

In tourist areas, though, the only look that really counts is the look of your wallet. Free spenders are royalty, no matter how they dress. Cheap Charlies can dress like the royalty, and they're still just cheapskates.

#9 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by fromipanema on 30/5/2010 at 05:49

Hey guys!
I´d just started plannig a trip to Laos/Vietnam and Camboja in jan/fev ´11.Searching aroud the web - when I found thid god-sent site - I became aware of the dress code deal, specially in Laos. I´ve reading everything I can but still have some doubts, so I´d appreciate some help.
- The knee has to be covered or just above works? Is something like that http://www.fabsugar.com/Trend-Alert-Easy-Breezy-Denim-Skirts-286464 ok? Even in temples?
- The shoulders have to be covered, but are short sleeves ok? Or will I need a 3/4 or long sleeve?
- for swimming, short shorts are ok or I need a long one?
I know #2 gave some guidelines above, but I´m seeing such different reports that am puzzled.
Oh, and I´ve seen a lot of people saying "dress modestly" or "like you would at home", but I´m brazilian and these concepts here are very different than in the US/UK, so I really need it spelled out. I´ll probably be travelling alone, so I want to drawn the least attention possible.
Thanks!

#10 fromipanema has been a member since 30/5/2010. Posts: 4

Posted by wanderingcat on 30/5/2010 at 08:39

for temples:
knees & shoulders covered. ideally no plunging necklines/'see throughs'/bared midriffs. you'll probably hafta kneel/sit down on the floor at some point - skirts/bermudas that just cover the knee will ride up & expose more. also, some tall Westerners don't realise that their knee-length hemlines can be above the eye level of shorter Asian devotees kneeling down - being in a temple doesn't mean that the men won't try to peep (though this was noticed in Japan rather than SE Asia). lightest easiest solution = thin opaque sarong cloth, just tie it on as a long wraparound skirt when entering temples, remove after leaving. or if you really really hate to wear it over your knee-length skirt, just drape it over exposed knees whenever seated - some Thai temples provide pieces of cloth for this very purpose for college girls & office ladies who come straight from school/work in uniform.

short sleeves perfectly fine. there are some local women who bare their shoulders in temples, but the requirements seem to be white hair + minimum age of 70-100+ years :P

swimming in Laos - depends where. everywhere, local women swim fully-clothed, even when bathing in rivers they're covered from armpit to knees in a sarong. in Vang Vieng & Kuangsi falls near Luang Prabang, many tourists wear bikinis. the only locals i know who don't mind this are the younger (& a few of the older) guys ;)

#11 wanderingcat has been a member since 21/10/2006. Posts: 730
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Posted by wanderingcat on 30/5/2010 at 09:20

forgot to add...
if you happen to be at temples during certain ceremonies/festivals, being properly dressed can make a difference in whether you're invited to join in. have been times in Thailand & Laos where i've been asked to sit inside the main hall, join in stuff like chanting or preparing food for monks, & also allowed to take photos of proceedings, while other tourists in shorts/other inappropriate attire were told to keep out.

as to why some expats say that they do see local Thais dress in very little in temples (i've seen that too)...Thai temples have a hierarchy system e.g. Royal class 1, class 2, class 3 'status'...& protocol is much more strictly observed in the 'higher ranking' temples, while things can be very flexible in other temples without this status, esp away from the capital.

most of the temples that are tourist attractions are the highest ranking ones though. in Bangkok, Wat Phra Kaew (highest ranked 'special class') is the strictest, even flipflops are not accepted for foreigners...& at Wat Bowon (first class) i saw 2 Western guys in bermudas literally pulled away by temple officials (there was an ordination ceremony going on in honour of the Thai King).

even for Laos, in Vientiane i've seen local young women in shorts in Wat Simuang, but according to monk friends they wouldn't be allowed into Wat Sisaket or Pha That Luang.

#12 wanderingcat has been a member since 21/10/2006. Posts: 730
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Posted by fromipanema on 30/5/2010 at 23:05

Thanks, wanderingcat!
But still have some doubt: when off temples, I still should keep the no knee/no shoulders rule as well, right? Seems implied if they are swimming with these parts covered, they will cover it everyplace else, but... would like some confirming before trying to find the clothes for the trip ;-)

#13 fromipanema has been a member since 30/5/2010. Posts: 4

Posted by wanderingcat on 31/5/2010 at 00:34

when off temples, I still should keep the no knee/no shoulders rule as well, right? Seems implied if they are swimming with these parts covered, they will cover it everyplace else

Thailand:
a reason why Thais still swim covered up is their fear of becoming tan in the sun. outside of temples (& palaces & office workplaces), pretty much anything goes. local girls do wear mini shorts & sleeveless/spaghetti strap/halter tops.

Laos:
things are changing in the more urbanised areas esp Vientiane, but still generally more conservative than in Thailand. office wear & school uniform for girls up to university level is still the mid-calf length traditional skirt. but in the tourist areas they're pretty used to seeing foreigners dressed in much less than locals.

#14 wanderingcat has been a member since 21/10/2006. Posts: 730
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Posted by fromipanema on 14/6/2010 at 01:33

Thanks again!

#15 fromipanema has been a member since 30/5/2010. Posts: 4

Posted by travelkat88 on 20/6/2010 at 14:35

Hi Newbie

I travel a couple of times a year somewhere in South East Asia and my travel wardrobe consists of light cotton mix trousers (pure cotton crushes terribly) 2 pairs of comfortable open shoes (one for walking everywhere and a more respectable pair) and t-shirts with sleeves that aren't tight or show lots of flesh. I also take one really nice t-shirt in case dress up is required somewhere. This gear fits in anywhere and I don't have to carry heaps of clothes.

Oh, and I always take my pashmina shawl, which sometimes doubles as a blanket in enthusiastic air cnditioning.

I also don't wear any designer lable gear and I leave my jewellery at home, as I like to be able to fit in with the local people which is near on impossible if you appear to be really wealthy.

Hope that helps

Travelkat

#16 travelkat88 has been a member since 19/6/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 8

Posted by MADMAC on 20/6/2010 at 23:35

"I also don't wear any designer lable gear and I leave my jewellery at home, as I like to be able to fit in with the local people which is near on impossible if you appear to be really wealthy."

Believe it or not, there are really wealthy people here - some of them are my friends. This is not Africa, and having wealth here earns you respect. I am not saying you should flawnt gold jewelry and so forth, but you don't need to dress down either. You don't win brownie points for that here. I was in Savankhet two years ago and this European guy comes walking by wearing a beat up tank top, goofy shorts and flip flops. He looked utterly ridiculous. A lao woman asked me "Why would someone who can afford to fly over here not bother to buy decent clothes" - to which I had no good answer.

I have lived in provincial Thailand for three years. I am considered wealthy by Thai standards and I wear quality clothes. I prefer to look GQ when I go out, and my wife insists that I don't look like a bum. I have no problem fitting in at my wife's village and if I dressed down they would think I was stupid.

If you want to dress in cheap, light clothes for comfort (some people from colder climes wrestle with the heat here) that's fine. But if you think you are going to get in better with the locals because you are dressing "like them" (and again - their dress is varied too. There are wealthy and middle class people here) your dreaming. That's not the way things work here. This is a class riven environment.

#17 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by fromipanema on 24/6/2010 at 08:59

Thanks, guys!!!
For better or worse, I don´t have jewelry/label issues!
Travelkat88, thanks for the tips - I got over the fact that I´ll have to wear pants, so the cotton blend tip is specially appreciated.

#18 fromipanema has been a member since 30/5/2010. Posts: 4

Posted by travelkat88 on 24/6/2010 at 17:41

Hi Madmac

Although I understand and respect your comments about how to dress and what to wear when living in Thailand, I was talking about the gear I take with me when travelling through many asian countries, India, Sri Lanka etc. Firstly, I don't want to be weighed down with a lot of luggage and secondly I like the freedom of being able to go anywhere at any time and fit in with whatever is appropriate at the time.

It's also comfortable to not be worrying about losing something valuable or ruining an expensive outfit if I come across an interesting adventure that could end up with me getting mucky.

I figure that, after all I'm on holiday and the main purpose of the trip is to travel, have fun and enjoy, not waltz around like a princess.

Travelkat

#19 travelkat88 has been a member since 19/6/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 8

Posted by travelkat88 on 24/6/2010 at 17:43

Hi Fromipanema

Hope you have a wonderful trip full of adventures and new experiences.

Traelkat

#20 travelkat88 has been a member since 19/6/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 8

Posted by MADMAC on 25/6/2010 at 01:44

Travelkat
Fair enough. I can't speak to the sub-continent, as I've never been there. But having lived in Thailand for three years now, I made a number of observations that put to rest either things I read in books that are now completely outdated about Thai culture, or about notions I carried with me from where I grew up. The "fitting in" idea was one of them. I originally did not want to buy a chopper, because I wanted to "fit in" with the locals. What I quickly learned was that they respected you more if you had more money. It equated to more status. And riding around on a chopper got me more status than riding around on a crappy little Honda Wave. Now, I only buy into that so far. I don't like cars and trucks, so even though I would get more status by owning one, I ride my chopper because it's a lot more fun. But the point is I discovered that I was being foolish in thinking I needed to tone down my tastes in order to fit in. I play Thai chess almost every day, and the guys I play with are all pretty poor in comparison to me. Yet if I sold the chopper and put on crappy clothes so that I looked like them, they'd think I was an idiot. I gain respect by having money and wearing designer clothes - I don't have a problem fitting in because of it.

So when it comes to Thailand and clothes, my advice is wear what you normally would given this climate. Thai culture is certainly not hyper sensitive or all that different from ours in this regard.

#21 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957


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