How to Dress Properly in Thailand

Dress respectfully when visiting temples
Dress respectfully when visiting temples

Okay, so you’ve just stepped off the plane from bitterly cold Europe and want to start right away on that all-over body tan, or show off all the hard work from the gym. But before you start flexing your muscles in public or going topless at the beach, pay attention to some local etiquette.

Despite its reputation for naughty fun, Thailand is actually quite conservative with its values. Never mind all the in-your-face girlies hanging out of go go bars, most Thais are fairly shy and modest. Don’t be deceived by their friendliness or lack of complaint, inwardly they have some very strict protocols for behaviour, but their culture limits them from telling you directly when you are being offensive.

It may be okay to wander around in your bikini or Speedo on a Phuket beach, but here in Chiang Mai there ain’t no beaches I’m afraid. Frequently we see guys riding around topless, or songtaews full of scantily clad people returning from a day rafting the rivers – for goodness sake, cover yourself up properly – you’re guests here.

Now imagine this, Thais don’t sunbathe topless, in fact they don’t sunbathe at all, if they did you can bet it wouldn’t be topless. Imagine what they would think seeing you with your breasts exposed to the world, or worse still, going for a skinny dip! You are in their country. I’m sure you would turn your nose up at a bunch of Indian tourists sitting at the bottom of your garden spitting out bright red paan. I suppose you just have to remember where you are.

Thais judge you by the way you dress, and status is very important to them. Sure, they’ve seen loads of scruffy backpackers passing through so they’re used to it, however, they won’t be terribly friendly or respectful of you. If you need something from an official, such as visa extension, then you’d better get you Sunday best on (well, not quite, but a collared shirt, long pants or knee-length dress/skirt with covered shoulders works much better).

Of course, temples are places of worship and held in high regard by all Thais, so please, carry a pair of long pants and sleeved shirt and pop them on when you want to enter these sanctuaries.

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Chiang Mai is pretty casual, but by dressing well when meeting with Thais (particularly important ones) you are demonstrating that you are taking them seriously and they’ll more willingly help you. Silk tunics are a popular accessory for men, and although the traditional Northern dress (or the ubiquitous blue denim shirt) is usually reserved for Fridays and special occasions, you’ll always get smiles of approval from the locals for wearing their unique costume.

In general, people in Chiang Mai dress for the weather, which can be searing hot in April and pretty darned cold (especially in the mountains) during the winter (Nov – Mar). Footwear is particularly casual and slip-ons or flip-flops work best because you’ll frequently be removing them when you go indoors. Thais wear them to work, climb mountains in them, go running, ride bicycles – you name it.

Since most Asian girls feel a little short, they usually pump themselves up on heels. They also hate getting suntanned, so they tend to cover themselves from head to toe. In general, urban Thais dress well; in the rural areas they dress in what they have.

As in every county in the world, certain traditions seem to peter out, and rules and strictures gradually hold less of a grip over the people. Twenty years ago you would not have seen young Thai girls dressed in mini skirts and tank tops wandering around with their belly buttons hanging out. When it comes to fashion, it seems that these days scant dressing is accepted, although you may be frowned at if you venture out in the streets wearing nothing but your hot pants and bra. Well, when in Rome, do as the… anyway you get the message, keep your eye out for the way the locals dress and copy them.

Further reading…