Photo: Street food Phetchaburi Soi 10, Bangkok.

Southeast Asia forum

How should a girl dress in southeast Asia?

Posted by mari111 on 19/5/2013 at 14:45


I'll be 24 years old, backpacking around Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from early August till late November.

I've heard it'll be ridiculously hot, but lots of rain too. So I'll need a rain jacket. And apart from that, I'm completely lost.

Can I wear shorts in Indonesia, or a short (above the knee) skirt or dress? Is that disrespectful to locals? Will it bring catcalls and stuff like that?

I've been told not to bring jeans, what about leggings? Also, what clothes should I bring while hiking in Indonesia and around Southeast Asia? I've only hiked in Canada before, so it's...very different from hiking in the tropics.

I have no idea what I'm doing.

#1 mari111 has been a member since 9/3/2013. Posts: 4

Posted by Geer1 on 19/5/2013 at 17:49

While hiking and even at nights in places with mosquitos etc a pair of long pants(khakis or something or even jeans) is a good idea. Hiking in shorts etc isn't the best idea in some places. Even a long sleeve shirt can be a good idea in some cases.

It will be rainy season so a rain jacket is a good idea. Make sure to bring light clothes that dry quickly and easily as the humidity makes drying clothes difficult even in the drier seasons. If doing lots of hiking a pair of shoes is a must since they have lots of thorny plants and not to mention critters.

Shorts definitely aren't an issue and is what most people wear. Short skirts/dresses will get pretty much the same reaction as they do everywhere else(people will stare, some might try to pick you up, the odd older lady might be offended). It really isn't that much different over there then here when it comes to offending people and things like that so dress depending on the amount of attention you wish to draw etc.

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Posted by MADMAC on 20/5/2013 at 01:04

"It really isn't that much different over there then here when it comes to offending people and things like that so dress depending on the amount of attention you wish to draw etc."

This has been my experience in Thailand too. If anything, young Thai women tend to be a bit more risque than young anglo women.

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Posted by antoniamitchell on 20/5/2013 at 02:09

Hi Mari111,
What's "normal" for the locals varies widely from place to place. I've seen locals in Bangkok in hot pants and tank tops; I've seen locals in Prachuap (provincial town, not very touristy) go swimming fully dressed - leggings and long sleeved shirt, with an oversized t-shirt over top to hide clingy-itis. So you'll see vast variation, and that's just in Thailand.

Some areas, especially the Muslim areas, can be quite conservative (although even in peninsular Malaysia, where a lot of local women were very covered up, I saw Chinese locals dressed in short shorts). That said, I got stared at quite a bit by men in Malaysia, and I dressed quite conservatively, so I can imagine it would have been even worse if I'd showed my legs and shoulders. I haven't been to Indonesia - I'm guessing the touristy areas (Bali, etc.) are much more relaxed about it, as the locals are used to seeing Westerners dressed like Westerners. Off the beaten track, you'll likely find more conservative attitudes.

The important issue for to remember is that YOU need to feel comfortable - both in clothes you feel comfy in, and also in the amount of staring you receive. If being stared at bothers you, take that into account when you plan your outfits.

Two other points to remember when packing:
- You'll be expected to show respect by covering your shoulders/upper arms and legs when you visit temples (some places will have sarongs you can borrow at the entrance to cover up).
- If you're unused to a hot and humid climate, you'll be sweating a lot (and therefore changing your clothes and doing laundry a lot). So pack clothes that are breathable (natural fibres), dry quickly, and study enough to take a lot of punishment. You don't want to pack something that will fall apart after 3 weeks.

Have fun!

#4 antoniamitchell has been a member since 13/5/2012. Posts: 541
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Posted by chopin on 15/6/2013 at 02:25

the above replies are all to the point. I'd add more:

(a) in terms of climate - tank top & hot pants would be the best.
(b) in terms of respecting the locals - minimum for the top: t-shirt/shirt with sleeves, long pants or skirts below knee level.

For popular beaches, bikinis are ok.

For bigger cities esp. with lots of western tourists like Bangkok/Chiang Mai/Ho Chi Min, (a) is all right. (b) more for visiting temples/mosques.

However, even in big cities, my personal advice for ladies would be to put on at least knee-length shorts or skirts, and t-shirts/shirts with sleeves. The key is about how much flesh and shape is revealed - try not to show more than the arms and lower legs. This is because western women get a lot more attention from local men, esp. if you are the attractive type. Too much extra attention is not good for you, more so if you are in rural or isolated areas. Though tourism is growing trmendously in this region and people are generally friendly to tourists, bad things still happen like robbery and rape (at beaches for example) and even murder. Lone female tourists should exercise more caution.

So, to strike a balance between comfort and safety, I'd suggest knee-length shorts or skirts, and t-shirts with sleeves at the minimum. 100% cotton is the best material in climate like this, which you can easily buy at the local markets/shops and they're super cheap.

I hope you won't be put off, but do come to SEA, this is a very fascinating place. If you apply common sense and are observant, not to let yourself stand out too much in the crowd, not to linger alone in places that are dark and away from people, you should be fine.

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Posted by MADMAC on 15/6/2013 at 05:06

As I said, at least for Issan in Thailand, there is no difference between western dress norms and Thai. You wouldn't wear hot pants and a halter top to church back home and you don't wear it at a Wat here. There's no meaningful difference.

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